Cholesterol is found throughout everybody’s blood, and in specific concentrations is part of the body’s natural, healthy processes. But medicine has shown time and time again that higher cholesterol levels can pose an increased risk to the body’s cardiovascular and circulatory system, in the worst cases leading to heart attacks or strokes.
What is cholesterol?
Somewhat confusingly, cholesterol is not an entirely harmful substance, with it being a necessary structural component for many of the body’s cells. Cholesterol is an organic molecule and called a sterol (or steroid alcohol) that your body needs to produce naturally occurring steroid hormones, as well as creating Vitamin D. Furthermore, cholesterol is important for the production of stomach acids used to digest fats. While a certain level of cholesterol is essential for many bodily processes, research has shown a clear link between cholesterol and cardiovascular health. Too much cholesterol proves disastrous for the heart and the blood that it transports throughout the body.
What are the dangers of high levels of cholesterol?
A high level of cholesterol in your blood can cause the build-up of fatty deposits throughout your blood vessels. In a similar fashion to nicotine, as these deposits increase in size, it becomes more and more difficult for your blood to flow freely. This can cause increased blood pressure in many cases, and if fatty deposits are suddenly broken, this can create blood clots that can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. What makes increased cholesterol particularly troublesome is that there are no symptoms, meaning that there’s no way to tell there’s anything wrong until a potentially life-threatening incident. The only way to detect high cholesterol is to have a blood test.
What causes high levels of cholesterol?
One of the main factors in causing raised cholesterol is diet. Two main culprits are saturated fats and trans fats, found in animal products and artificial additives. Other foods that are particularly high in cholesterol are red meats and dairy products. Going hand in hand with dietary concerns, obesity will also increase the risks posed by cholesterol. On the other hand, exercise will help your body counteract harmful cholesterol build-up by increasing the presence of ‘HDL,’ a type of cholesterol that reduces the presence of ‘LDL,’ the bad cholesterol.
Smoking causes damage to the body’s blood vessels and circulation, increasing the risks from high cholesterol for smokers. Two other important factors to consider are age and diabetes. Aging slows down the liver, reducing the rate of cholesterol removal in the body. At the same time, diabetes comes with the risk of a higher occurrence of a particularly damaging type of cholesterol, while also affecting the lining of the arteries.
How can cholesterol levels be managed and treated?
Many preventative dietary and lifestyle measures can be taken to decrease the risk of high cholesterol. These include limiting the intake of salt, a major culprit in the increase of cholesterol levels, as well as eating more fruit and veg and whole-grain foods. Also, limiting consumption of animal fats, and regulating the intake of fats in general, will repay the effort with increased well-being, and help with the maintenance of a healthy weight that is central to reducing the presence of cholesterol. Quitting smoking will also greatly aid cardiovascular health, and alongside moderation on the drinking of alcohol will help improve the health of the circulatory system. Lastly, getting regular exercise will increase your health while also bringing down stress, which will further improve your health.
If these lifestyle changes still have not brought down cholesterol levels, a doctor will consider prescribing medications. These include statins, that limit the liver’s production of cholesterol, or bile-acid-binding resins, which prompt the liver into converting excess cholesterol into bile acid for the digestive system. There are also inhibitors that will decrease the absorption of cholesterol from the diet, as well as injectable medications that increase the liver’s ability to absorb harmful LDL cholesterol.