What's the Big Deal About Cholesterol?

What do burgers, bacon and cheese all have in common? High cholesterol! One in every six adults—17% of the U.S. population—has high blood cholesterol. In fact, high cholesterol in the blood is one of the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke—two leading causes of death in the United States.

Unfortunately, high cholesterol frequently remains untreated because there are usually no symptoms. September marks Cholesterol Education Month, the perfect time to get your cholesterol checked and take steps to lower it if it’s high.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that comes from a person’s liver and food intake, and is circulated through the bloodstream. When you have high (LDL) cholesterol, a person may develop fatty deposits in their blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits will make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries, which can then increase a person's risk for a heart attack or stroke. Good (HDL) cholesterol helps remove bad cholesterol from the bloodstream, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease.

Why is Cholesterol Good for the Human Body?

While most people think of cholesterol in a negative way, it actually plays a vital role in the functioning of the human body. Some of the purposes of good cholesterol include:
  • Bodily Support: HDL cholesterol is a crucial building material in the body. It helps maintain the structure of cells and vessels, which helps improve the overall health and function in the body.
  • Hormone Production: Cholesterol is stored in the adrenal glands, ovaries and the testes and is then converted to steroid hormones to help our bodies function properly. Without steroid hormones, we’d suffer from problems with our weight, sex, digestion, bone health and mental health.
  • Digestion: Many are surprised to learn that HDL cholesterol plays an important role in the body’s digestion process. Cholesterol is used to help the liver create bile to help us digest the food we consume. 

What Are the Causes of High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol comes from a variety of sources including your family history and what you eat. Here are some of the common causes:
  • Diet: Eating too much saturated fat can cause high cholesterol. You will find this unhealthy fat in beef, pork, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese. Packaged foods are also known to have high levels of saturated fat, which is why it’s always important to check food labels. 
  • Activity level and weight: Lack of physical activity and being overweight is likely to increase your risk for high cholesterol.
  • Age and gender: After the age of 20, your cholesterol levels naturally begin to rise. In men, cholesterol levels generally level off after age 50. However, women’s cholesterol levels usually remain low until after menopause, after which they rise to about the same level as men. 
  • Family history: Genes may determine how a body metabolizes LDL cholesterol. Inherited disorders such as hyperlipidemia and hypercholesterolemia can lead to dangerously high blood cholesterol, which can be difficult to manage.
  • Cigarette smoking: If you already suffer from high cholesterol, smoking is known to accelerate the damage done by your cholesterol levels.

How to Lower Cholesterol

While high cholesterol can seem quite scary, the good news is that a few small changes to your diet can help lower cholesterol, which in turn will lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. From sweets to drinks, here are some foods that can improve your cholesterol:
  • Oats
  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Tea
  • Red Wine
  • Barley and other whole grains
  • Vegetable oils

Cholesterol Screening at UnityPoint Clinic

When it comes to knowing your cholesterol levels, knowledge is power! It’s best to have your primary care doctor run your cholesterol test during your annual preventive exam. When you are screened, risk factors such as your age, family history, smoking habits, and blood pressure must also be considered when evaluating your results. Once you know your cholesterol numbers, your primary care doctor can recommend a treatment and prevention plan, as well as follow-up testing.

Don’t have a primary care physician yet? Use our Find a Doctor tool to locate a primary care physician in your area, and schedule your annual exam today!
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