When you think of America it wouldn’t be uncommon to have fast food come to mind almost immediately. It’s a stereotype sure, but I live here and I don’t think it’s wrongful to think that. With business booming for places like Whataburger (a Texas thing), McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. It shouldn’t be a surprise that heart problems are common for older folks. Cholesterol is one of the main contributing factors for heart disease, but what is it, why, and what can you do to lower your chances of succumbing to it.
What is Cholesterol?
Common knowledge knows why it’s bad, but not necessarily why it’s needed. Why don’t we just make cholesterol illegal so no-one can ever have cholesterol again; well it’s actually more complicated than that. Cholesterol is a lipid (a fat) that has a waxy like texture and is used in several vital tasks in the body
These tasks include the production of cell membranes, production of certain hormones, and allowing the production of vitamin D. Without cholesterol none of things would be possible, making living arguably impossible as well.
This being said it’s one of the largest contributing factors in heart disease. This is because they are not water soluble. Meaning that it doesn’t dissolve in water, which would make it easy for the body to get rid of any excess that it has. Cholesterol however, is fat soluble, meaning that it’s stored in the fats and it only leaves the body once it’s used which might not be that often. Furthermore, with diets of mostly junk food, there is cholesterol coming in constantly with nowhere for it to go.
Due to being water soluble, transportation through the blood becomes impossible without assistance. This is where something called “Lipoproteins” come in. They are special proteins that pick up the cholesterol and transport it through the blood. There are two types of cholesterol, LDL and HDL.
LDL (low density lipoproteins) –
“Bad” Cholesterol. This refers to cholesterol that has a low lipoprotein to cholesterol ratio. Meaning that there is much more cholesterol than lipoproteins, making them more difficult to transport, and deposited in the blood stream itself.
HDL (high density lipoproteins) –
“Good” Cholesterol. This is the same as LDL except the ratio of lipoproteins to cholesterol is much higher, making it more stable and much easier to transport in the blood stream. Making it much less likely to get stuck in the arteries. Furthermore, they actually pick up extra cholesterol deposited in your arteries and deliver them to your liver, filtering them out. Effectively cleaning up your arteries.
It goes from there, to the liver where it’s processed and released back into the blood. However when there’s nowhere to go there becomes an excess of it in the blood stream, causing build-up and deposits of LDL cholesterol in the arteries. Overtime if it’s not addressed or intake of cholesterol curbed it could cause full blockage of an artery, and cause a heart attack.
Symptoms of High Cholesterol
What’s so scary about this is that there are usually no symptoms beforehand of high cholesterol. Only blood tests reveal how at risk you are. This is also why heart attacks, strokes, and other heart complications often come without warning.
Technically this is not fully true, there are some symptoms like having yellow bumps on your skin (cholesterol deposits) and having white lines around your iris (arcus senilis) are symptoms oh high cholesterol. However, if you’re experiencing those symptoms then you are at critical risk of heart disease.
The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that children get their first blood test done between the ages of 9-11. This may sound strange because they aren’t at risk of heart disease, however it’s because some people can have genetic reasons for abnormally high cholesterol such as chronic liver disease.
If conditions are found to be normal, then between ages 11 and 44 should be every 5 years, between ages 45-65 should be every 2 years, and ages 65+ should be annually. These are general guidelines but if the results are unusually high or you feel that you should, increasing the frequency of tests recommended.
Causes of High Cholesterol
The main cause of high cholesterol is diet. Eating foods that are high in salt, sugar, or fats contribute to your overall cholesterol levels. However the only reason this is a problem is because an overwhelming amount of them become LDL cholesterol.
This is because the LDL cholesterol is not transported though the blood stream effectively and is deposited in your arteries, causing a buildup of plaque. Over time this plaque becomes larger and larger until it fully blocks off the artery, causing a heart attack (or stroke depending on where the clot is), or bursting in the blood vessel and causing the blood to clot, causing a heart attack (or stroke).
Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
- Inactivity – Failing to be active, whether that be exercise or just walking around will result in a high risk of high cholesterol
- Unhealthy Diet – This is easily the largest offender of high cholesterol. Simply because that is the area where you can make the biggest difference by limiting the amount that goes into your body in the first place.
- Obesity – Obesity plays into many different diseases. Not only does the extra weight put unneeded stress on the heart to pump harder, but it also is an indicator of a bad diet, which is the number one cause.
- Alcohol Abuse – Because you liver is also responsible for filtering alcohol out of the blood, putting that constant stress on your liver can lead to liver disease, causing the cholesterol to go unchecked.
- Smoking – Smoking constricts the blood vessels, causing them to be smaller. With the vessels being smaller, it will take less cholesterol deposits to clog an artery, causing a fatal cardiac event.
Certain medications that you take can also have an effect on how at risk you are of high cholesterol. Ask you doctor is any of your medicines are putting you at risk and what you can do about it.
Genetics can also play into it. Diseases like Chronic Kidney Disease, Chronic Liver Disease, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Hypothyroidism, and Lupus all contribute in varying degrees to high cholesterol.
Effects of High Cholesterol
Having high cholesterol without addressing it will eventually lead to problems, like a ball goes up it must come down. The main cause of high cholesterol is high blood pressure.
Atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque)
High cholesterol leads to more LDL being in the blood stream. These LDL can buildup along the sides of the arteries causing them to be harder and more narrow, disallowing blood to flow freely, and causing high blood pressure. This is Atherosclerosis. Left unchecked it can lead to heart attack or stroke.
High Blood Pressure
When you have high cholesterol, it starts to buildup in the arteries, making them narrower and forcing the same amount of blood, through a now smaller space. This directly causes the pressure of the blood to go up, increasing your risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). Higher blood pressure could also cause an aneurysm (bursting of blood vessel causing internal bleeding).
Chest Pain (Angina)
As more and more cholesterol deposits in the arteries, they will become restricted increasing blood pressure. With all this pressure it can cause mild to severe chest pain, aka Angina. Eventually leading to heart attack or stroke
When the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries becomes critical, it can either completely block an artery, or burst causing the blood to clot and block the artery itself. When the blood stops flowing into the heart it causes a heart attack, and without immediate care, death.
A stroke is almost the exact same as a heart attack; the only thing that’s different is where the clot happens. Strokes cut off blood flow to the brain causing it to cease either full or partial function. Within minutes brain tissue starts to die, which cannot be reversed, and without immediate care this results in death.
So with all the depressing results of high cholesterol out of the way, let’s talk about how to reverse it. Well to start off, there is not substitute for a healthy diet and exercise.
A healthy diet and exercise are paramount to a healthy circulatory system. Eating foods that are low in salt, sugar, and fat as well as eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will decrease the amount of cholesterol in the body. This will also increase the amount of HDL cholesterol, helping your body clear out some of those fatty LDL cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels.
Stop Eating Fast Food
Fast food is detrimental to your heart health. With a standard burger, fries, drink combo you are getting HUGE amounts of all three (fat, sugar, and salt). The burger may have lettuce, but it also has highly processed red meat that is so loaded with grease that it makes the bread soggy sometimes. They usually completely cover fries in salt, and the drinks saturated with sugar and syrup.
ONE McDonalds Big Mac meal has 58% of your daily intake of fat, and sugar, as well as 47% of your daily salt intake. All in one burger, a medium fry and a medium drink. And lets face it… most people are getting large.
Limiting the amount of fats that you get from animals (butter, red meat, ghee, pork, or basically any fats that solidify at room temperature) can greatly decrease the amount of unhealthy cholesterol that enters you system. Instead of these try using olive oil (in moderation) for it’s omega contents. Fish fats are actually hugely beneficial to your heart health, as they are famous for their omega 3 content. Omega 3’s reduce the amount of triglycerides (fat) in the blood by about 30-40%.
There are several habits you should drop in order to lower your risk of high cholesterol, and thus heart disease. They include but are not limited to quitting smoking, start exercising, quit drinking alcohol, and manage your stress effectively. Stress, or losing your temper in the heat of the moment can increase blood pressure, and maybe sending you over the edge into a heart attack or stroke. It happens more often than you think.
Supplements That Can Help
I just want to say that there is no supplement that can replace eating healthy and exercising. However, there are supplements that can help you reach your goals even faster and get out of a rut.
Niacin, or otherwise known as Vitamin B3, helps to reduce triglycerides in the blood and help boost levels of HDL as well. This has been the go to for medical professionals for a long time running, not to discredit any following suggestions. You can find a High Quality Niacin Supplement here.
Omega 3 supplements, derived from fish oils, are most commonly found in the skin of fatty cold water fish like salmon, mackerel, etc. It is also very effective in removing triglycerides from the blood (according to studies more so than niacin). You can find a great omega 3 supplement here.
This is a soluble fiber supplement that if taken with a meal actually soaks up a significant amount of the cholesterol, disallowing it to be put into your body in the first place. Stopping the progression at the source. You can find a good Psyllium Husk supplement here
Garlic, known to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol overall, can improve the condition as well. The great thing about this is it tastes great too, so if supplements aren’t for you then you can just add it to your meals. A great garlic extract here.
In conclusion, there are many reasons to be afraid of high cholesterol ranging in severity from chest pain to death. However there are many things you can do to reverse the effects of it over time. It won’t be over night, and it might feel like a struggle or it’s impossible to workout consistently or eat healthy (junk food has been proven to be as addicting as hard core drugs in some cases). That’s the thing about humans though, we do the impossible. So I hope you learned something and that you have a great rest of your day!