High cholesterol is a common problem among Americans. It is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, yet it has no symptoms. Understanding cholesterol, its function in the body, and how to effectively manage it is key to maintaining cardiovascular health, whether you’re a teen or an older adult.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. A majority (75-80%) is made by the liver, while the rest comes from the foods (only animal products) that we eat. Despite cholesterol’s negative connotation, it plays a crucial role in our health. Cholesterol builds and maintains cell membranes, acts as a precursor for hormones and vitamin D, aids in the production of bile, insulates nerve fibers, and is important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins. Cholesterol is not a problem until there is an excess in the blood.
Types of Cholesterol
High cholesterol has no symptoms, so many people do not realize they have it. The good news is that it can be detected by a simple blood test. Your doctor will order what is called a lipid profile that looks at:
Low density lipoproteins (LDL): Known as “bad” cholesterol, an excess of LDL cholesterol can lead to a build-up of plaque in the walls of arteries leading to a condition called atherosclerosis.
High density lipoproteins (HDL): Known as “good” cholesterol, HDL helps the body get rid of the bad cholesterol. It acts as a cholesterol scavenger by bringing cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down. Higher levels of HDL decrease your risk of heart disease.
Very low density lipoproteins (VLDL): This is a precursor to LDL and is made mostly of triglycerides. A high VLDL level increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Triglycerides: Triglycerides are another type of fat. They are carried by VLDLs and are stored in fat cells throughout the body. Excess calories, alcohol, or sugar are converted to triglycerides.
Strategies for Treating High Cholesterol
Whether you choose a more conventional or natural approach for decreasing cholesterol, the strategy is the same. Any treatment focuses on one or all of the following:
Decrease consumption: Looking at your diet should be the first place any treatment should start. There are many effective diets out there, including the Ornish diet, the Portfolio Diet, and the TLC diet. Following a strict diet is not always necessary and lowering cholesterol can be achieved if you remember that cholesterol is found only in animal products and triglycerides are formed when we eat an excess of sugar, alcohol, or calories.
Decrease production: Statin medications like Lipitor work on decreasing the production of cholesterol by blocking an enzyme necessary to make cholesterol. A similar effect can be achieved by taking a natural product called red yeast rice, which contains a naturally-occurring statin that has no side-effects. Soy has also been shown to decrease production of cholesterol.
Decrease absorption: A drug known as Zetia works by preventing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine. Vytorin is another commonly-used drug that combines a statin with a cholesterol absorption inhibitor. You can also decrease absorption through diet, by increasing your consumption of sterols, which can be found in nuts and vegetable oils. A smaller amount is found in fruits and vegetables.
Increase elimination: Bile contains cholesterol, so bile acid binding resins, like the drug Welchol, are used conventionally to eliminate cholesterol through feces. A more natural approach is to increase the amount of soluble fiber in the diet. Soluble fiber is found in fruits, oats, barley and legumes.
Factors that Influence Cholesterol Levels
In addition to diet, cholesterol levels are affected by age, weight, gender, genetics, disease, and lifestyle. Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is an important step in battling heart disease and stroke. For some, this requires dietary changes. For others it may mean a multi-pronged approach incorporating medications or supplements. While naturopathic doctors are uniquely trained in supporting patients with diet and lifestyle changes, they can also prescribe medications to lower cholesterol.
Thrive’s offers free health talks on Treating High Cholesterol without Drugs on Saturday, October 15, November 19, and December 17 from 10:00-11:00 a.m. Register online now.
The Thrive dispensary also carries high quality practitioner-brand natural supplements, available only under the guidance of a licensed practitioner, for treating high cholesterol and other health concerns.