Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that exists in all of your body’s cells. Your body needs cholesterol to manufacture vitamin D and hormones and digest foods. But too much cholesterol — especially too much LDL or “bad” cholesterol — can increase your risk of coronary artery disease.
Higher blood levels of LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, cholesterol increase your risk of coronary artery disease, but higher blood levels of HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, cholesterol decrease your risk of coronary artery disease. That’s because HDL cholesterol carries excess cholesterol from the rest of your body back to your liver, where it’s flushed from your system. HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol for this reason.
To protect your heart, you should havehealthy blood levels of both kinds of cholesterol. If you’re 20 or older, you need to have your cholesterol levels checked every five years. If your doctor says your numbers need improvement, there are lifestyle changes you can make and medications you can use to bring your cholesterol levels back into the healthy range.
Eat Heart-Healthy Foods
A diet rich in heart-healthy foods can help lower your LDL cholesterol level while increasing your HDL cholesterol level. High-fiber foods, like oatmeal, apples, kidney beans, pears, prunes and barley, should form a portion of your heart-healthy diet. The soluble fiber in these foods absorbs LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream.
Fish, especially fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can protect your heart. Try salmon, lake trout, albacore tuna, sardines, halibut, herring or mackerel. A small serving of nuts — about 1.5 ounces a day — can also help control your blood cholesterol. Olive oil, which is rich in antioxidants, is another delicious heart-healthy food. Extra-virgin olive oils are highest in antioxidants, so they’re the best choice. However, limit yourself to about two tablespoons of olive oil a day, due to the high fat content.
You can also add to your diet foods that have been fortified with stanols and sterols, plant compounds that help control your blood level of LDL cholesterol. You can buy margarines, fruit juices and other foods that are fortified with these plant compounds.
Smoking lowers your HDL cholesterol; remember, that’s the “good” cholesterol that protects you from coronary artery disease by removing “bad” LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream. Smoking also damages your arteries, increases your risk of blood clots, and raises your risk of heart attack and stroke. If you smoke, quitting can significantly improve your blood cholesterol levels.
Everybody needs to get a little exercise every day to stay healthy, but if you’re not already active, even moderate physical activity like walking can improve your cholesterol levels. Exercise lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol. Some cardiologists recommend a 45-minute walk every day. Others encourage their patients to aim for taking a walk five days a week. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week — or even every day.
Avoid Saturated Fat
For many years, doctors believed dietary cholesterol contributed to higher levels of blood cholesterol. The accepted medical wisdom for people struggling with high cholesterol was to avoid or minimize dietary sources of the substance, like eggs.
Now it’s understood that dietary sources of cholesterol don’t contribute much to your blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat, on the other hand, is a different story. Avoid foods high in saturated fats to bring your blood cholesterol levels down. Butter, hydrogenated oils like palm and coconut oil, rendered animal fats like lard and shortening, processed meats, whipped cream and cheese are all high in saturated fats.
Cut back on saturated fats by using canola, vegetable oil or olive oil instead of stick margarine, butter, shortening or lard. Eat more fish and less red meat.
If you have unhealthy cholesterol levels, lifestyle changes are a good idea. But you shouldn’t dismiss the vital role of medication for improving cholesterol. There’s no faster way to improve your cholesterol than using a medication designed for that purpose.
In fact, lifestyle changes can only go so far when it comes to improving your cholesterol. Since the causes of high cholesterol can include factors you’re powerless to change, like your age, family history and certain health conditions, lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to bring your cholesterol levels back into the healthy range. Statins like Crestor are the most popular drugs for improving cholesterol. They can lower your LDL cholesterol level by 20 to 50 percent.
If you’ve been diagnosed with unhealthy cholesterol levels, a combination of lifestyle changes and medication can bring your cholesterol levels in the healthy range again. While unhealthy cholesterol levels can raise your risk of heart attack and stroke, the good news is that dietary modifications, exercise and the right medication can easily eliminate this threat to your heart health.
About the Author: Contributing blogger Dr. Rodney Sewell practices medicine in Atlanta.