Cholesterol gets a lot of bad press, which is slightly unfair considering it’s necessary for the body to function correctly. So what exactly is cholesterol and how does it affect your health? Here is some information about the dual role cholesterol plays inside you.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance known as a lipid. It’s naturally produced in your liver and is also ingested as part of the food you eat. Cholesterol travels throughout your body via the blood supply and is found in all your body’s cells. Although it’s often said there are two types of cholesterol, it’s more accurate to say there is one type of cholesterol that is carried in your blood by two types of protein. Cholesterol attached to low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is known as bad cholesterol; when attached to high-density lipoproteins (HDL), it’s called good cholesterol.
How does having high cholesterol mean?
When you are told you have high cholesterol, it means the LDL level in your bloodstream is too high. This excess LDL cholesterol can attach to the lining of your arteries, building up to cause plaque. The plaque then hardens and restricts the space blood has to travel through to the heart and other organs. The result can be a stroke or heart disease.
In contrast to LDLs, HDL cholesterol doesn’t attach to the walls of your arteries. It travels through your body and back to your liver, and then is expelled from your body naturally. HDLs can also ease the build-up of LDLs; the more HDLs you have in your body, the less likely you are to have heart disease.
What causes high cholesterol?
High cholesterol can be caused by eating foods that contain high levels of cholesterol, such as eggs and shellfish. However, many of these foods also have health benefits. It’s not necessary, and most likely unhealthy, for you to cut them out altogether from your diet. Rather, you should have a balanced diet that allows you to eat a variety of food types, including eggs and shellfish, in moderation. This can cut down on your bad cholesterol levels. Things to avoid are:
- Saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil
- Trans fats found in margarine and cakes
- Fatty meats such as bacon, steak and liver
- Milk products
- Fast food and snacks
- Other foods that contain hydrogenated fats
It’s worth repeating that a number of these foods can be taken in moderation and still be good for your health.
Obesity, lack of exercise and an unhealthy lifestyle can also contribute to high cholesterol. In addition, there are other factors that are not a matter of choice. Referred to by medical professionals as “fixed factors,” they include:
- Age — Your arteries can narrow as you get older.
- Family health history — Heart disease, stroke or cholesterol-related conditions might run in your family.
- Ethnicity — Certain ethnic groups, such as people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Indian descent, have a greater chance of having higher blood cholesterol.
How can you lower your cholesterol?
The primary necessities for keeping your cholesterol at healthy levels are: a balanced diet, healthy lifestyle and exercise.
A balanced diet includes:
- A good proportion of fruits and vegetables
- Some starchy foods such as bread, rice and pasta (preferably wholegrain varieties where possible)
- A limited amount of foods high in sugar or fat
- Soy-based foods
- Unsaturated fats
6. Oats and barley
A healthy lifestyle means being physically active, not smoking and keeping your alcohol intake to a safe amount. Exercise helps to control high cholesterol by stimulating an enzyme that moves LDL cholesterol to your liver and away from your artery walls. Your emotional health can also affect your physical health, so try to avoid stressful situations and make sure you have enough time for relaxation in your life.
Cholesterol isn’t all bad, it has its good side too. What’s more, it’s something that usually can be controlled by your lifestyle choices. Making the right choices and maintaining a healthy balance of good and bad cholesterol will most likely allow you to enjoy a longer life.