Cholesterol is a concept that most of us are familiar with, and it’s vital that we keep track of cholesterol levels through our annual physical exams. Both our “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” levels are monitored throughout our lives to ensure that we aren’t running the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack or stroke. In most cases, even if either or both levels start to head in an unhealthy direction, there are immediate effective steps that can be taken to correct their course and get our bodies back in a healthy range. But what does good vs. bad cholesterol mean, and what does each do for our body? In addition, we’ll be exploring the question “Does high cholesterol cause heart disease?”
Cholesterol is a substance naturally created by our liver, which typically makes the amount that’s necessary for essential body functions such as cell creation, nerve insulation, and hormone production. However, many of us tend to introduce new cholesterol into our bodies through our diet, throwing off the balance between LDL cholesterol levels (Low-Density Lipoprotein, also known as “bad cholesterol”) and HDL cholesterol (High-Density Lipoprotein, also known as “good cholesterol”). That imbalance becomes dangerous when your LDL levels are too high and start causing plaque buildup in your arteries, while your HDL levels are too low to counter the effect.
Is High Cholesterol Really a Problem?
High cholesterol can be a problem for anyone, regardless of your body type and regardless of how healthy you might try to be. It can afflict anyone, which is why it’s so important to verify your cholesterol levels with your doctor at least once a year. When your doctor tells you that your cholesterol is high, they are likely referring to high LDL, since that’s the number you want to keep below a certain threshold. High cholesterol can be a problem for a multitude of reasons, as it can both directly cause several life-threatening diseases and be indicative of other health issues that need to be addressed.
Typically, your doctor will test both your good and bad levels to give you your current readings, then provide the healthy range for your body type, height, age, etc. That way, if your good cholesterol is too low or your bad cholesterol is too high, you know how far away you are from being in a safer range. Your doctor will also discuss how you can improve your levels through diet, exercise, and (in more severe cases or cases in which diet and exercise simply aren’t enough) cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Medication is typically the last resort, but it can be highly effective for those who either suffer from high cholesterol due to genetics or have had little to no success with dietary changes and regular exercise routines. However, there are many foods that can help lower your LDL levels, some by eating and some by avoiding.
To lower LDL levels, choose MORE of these foods:
- Fruits (berries, apples, oranges, grapefruit, avocados, etc.)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, yams, other leafy greens, bell peppers, etc.)
- Whole grains
- Barley, whole wheat, oats, quinoa
- Beans, soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, and most other beans found in your regular grocery store’s bean section
- “Good” fats such as what’s found in avocados and fish
To lower LDL levels, choose LESS of these foods:
- Many processed foods (crackers, cookies, candy, and anything high in saturated fats, such as butter, cream, bacon, whole milk, etc.)
- Trans fats (such as found in doughnuts, biscuits, fried fast food, etc.)
- Foods high in salt and/or sugar
- High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, maltose, and lactose
Reading the labels on your favorite foods can help to identify which daily snack might be contributing the most to unhealthy cholesterol levels. It can also help you find new, heart-healthy produce or snacks to replace those.
For exercise, talk to your doctor about options that might work best for your lifestyle. Even something as simple as regularly walking or running on a treadmill can help your overall health significantly and lower your risk for diseases such as heart attacks or strokes. Similarly, try exploring exercise games or videos that can be done from the comfort of your own home.
Does High Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease or Other Health Problems?
The most common health issues that arise from having high cholesterol are high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, both of which are serious risk factors for heart disease. Because LDL cholesterol can contribute to dangerous plaque buildups in your veins and arteries, it can increase your risk of heart attacks or stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. In fact, heart disease itself was the leading cause of death in America in 2020.
But why do your cholesterol levels play such a significant role in causing a heart attack or stroke? To better understand the correlation between the two conditions, it helps to have a basic understanding of what leads to these life-threatening heart diseases.
Our hearts are completely dependent on having a healthy flow of blood because they need oxygen in order to function. Once our blood picks up oxygen from our lungs, it carries that oxygen throughout our bodies via veins and arteries until it returns to the heart. If that healthy bloodstream becomes blocked or slowed thanks to plaque narrowing our arteries—or even blocking them off completely—the heart is unable to continue functioning thanks to the lack of oxygenated blood, leading to what we call a heart attack.
A stroke is caused in the same way but specifically occurs when the arteries taking oxygenated blood to the brain are narrowed or blocked off by plaque buildup. And, depending on how long our brains go without a sufficient supply of oxygen, a stroke can have minimal and temporary effects, long-term effects that can inhibit a person’s life but not be lethal, or lethal effects.
What are the Warning Signs of High Cholesterol?
One important fact to keep in mind about cholesterol is that there often would not be any noticeable signs that your levels are getting high. By the time you might start showing symptoms, it’s likely that you would already be at risk for heart disease. The #1 proactive measure you can take to prevent your cholesterol levels from getting high is to get your blood drawn and levels checked at your annual physical exam. Your doctor would go over your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides levels with you and discuss any measures that may need to be taken to ensure you get or remain healthy.
Now, what if you haven’t been able to keep track of your cholesterol for one reason or another? Are there any other signs that might point to cholesterol problems?
Unfortunately, not directly. Because there are no symptoms of unhealthy cholesterol levels, the only way to know if you have an issue is to get a blood test done. High LDL can be caused by factors both within and outside of your control, so even those who eat healthily and exercise regularly are not guaranteed to be within a healthy range since genetics can be a determining factor as well.
However, that also means that you might know you’re more at risk of having high cholesterol if those in your family also struggle with it. If so, it’s recommended that you get tested to see how you’re faring and check on it at least once a year thereafter.
How Can I Prevent High Cholesterol?
That being said, there are a few ways that you can proactively prevent heart disease overall, most of which will also help regulate your good and bad cholesterol levels:
- Follow the dietary guidelines discussed above: Eating the right foods and avoiding those that contribute to bad cholesterol can have a dramatic impact on your overall health, including lowering your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- Be active: Many of us have a sedentary lifestyle, meaning we spend the majority of our day—working and relaxing—sitting down. It’s especially important for those with sedentary jobs to find a way to stay active and get some exercise worked into their regular routines.
- Be mindful of your weight: Obesity can cause numerous health problems, including straining your heart and raising your LDL cholesterol levels.
- Avoid or stop smoking: Smoking has been known to raise blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease.
- Go in for your annual physical exam: This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to stay on top of your heart health and remain educated about your current circumstances and what you can do to improve or maintain your health.
Above all, don’t be afraid to have an open conversation with your doctor about things you are and are not able to change within your current lifestyle. Heart health and cholesterol health are not “one size fits all,” and your plan should be customized to fit your personal needs. Still asking yourself “does high cholesterol cause heart disease?” Schedule an appointment today at Vital Heart & Vein to further discuss how your cholesterol levels directly impact your health.