If you’ve recently been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans have high cholesterol (more than 200 mg/dL), according to the American Heart Association. It can be a result of family history, a high-fat diet, living a sedentary lifestyle, obesity and smoking, or a combination of those.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and other cells and found in certain foods. Our bodies need cholesterol to function properly, but too much can build up inside our arteries as fatty deposits called plaque. If this plaque clogs an artery, it can result in heart attack or stroke.
Total cholesterol is made up low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol), which carries cholesterol to your arteries, high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol), which carries LDL cholesterol to the liver, and triglycerides, which are another type of lipid found in blood. Ideal cholesterol levels vary by individual, but a healthy adult without any major risk factors for heart disease (such as diabetes, smoking or obesity) should aim for the following:
• Total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL
• LDL cholesterol below 150 mg/dL
• HDL cholesterol above 40 mg/dL for men and above 50 mg/dL for women
How to lower your cholesterol
Need a plan to lower your cholesterol? Talk to your physician. Here are some tips I recommend to my patients:
• Watch what you eat. Dieting doesn’t have to be all about avoiding food you like. Focus on a low-saturated-fat, trans fat-free and low-cholesterol diet to lower your numbers. Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish and low-fat dairy and less processed foods, red meat and full-fat dairy. A diet rich in these “superfoods” can work as well as some cholesterol-lowering medication at reducing LDL cholesterol levels, studies have shown.
• Stay active. Regular exercise helps boost HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol. To get these benefits, shoot for 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity — such as jogging, biking and swimming — five days a week. It’s always best to consult your physician before starting an exercise program.
• Maintain a normal weight. Being overweight or obese can cause your HDL cholesterol levels to go down and your LDL levels to go up. Losing weight can do the opposite; just dropping 5 or 10 pounds can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke by lowering your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Strive for a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9; numbers vary according to age and gender.
• Stop smoking. When smokers kick the habit, their HDL cholesterol levels tend to increase.
• Consider medication. Your physician might prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications, called statins, to lower LDL cholesterol. These medications have made a tremendous impact on reducing heart disease over the past 20 years.
It’s never too late to take small steps to lower your cholesterol. Make heart health a priority and your body will thank you.
Dr. Sheela Swamy is an internal medicine specialist who treats patients at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital.