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Cholesterol – causes, risk factors and how to avoid

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol may be good or bad…in fact, it goes both ways. When it is present at normal levels, it is good for the body. However, if the concentrations of the substance is high, then it constitutes a danger that places the host at a risk of myocardial infarction. Cholesterol is a lipid substance. It does not mix with the blood. It is transported by lipoproteins around the body.

Parcels of cholesterol are carried by two types of lipoprotein:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): The HDL carries what is known as the good cholesterol.

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): The LDL carries the bad cholesterol.

Cholesterol has four major functions without which the human body would not survive. These four functions are:

  • It makes up a greater component of the cell wall structure

  • It is a part of the digestive bile acids in the intestine

  • It allows the production of vitamin D by the body

  • It enables the body to produce certain hormones.

Health risks and consequences of high cholesterol

High cholesterol levels are a major risk factors for stroke, heart disease and peripheral artery disease. The manifestation of all three diseases involve the same mechanism. Here, plaque accumulates within the arteries, inhibiting the flow of blood and altering cellular function and organs supplied by these vessels.

Atherosclerotic heart disease can cause symptoms of angina, when the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen to function at optimal capacity. Reduced blood supply to the brain may be caused by small arteries in the brain or due to blockage of the larger carotid arteries in the neck. This may result in a stroke or transient ischemic attack. Peripheral artery disease describes the narrowing of arteries that supply the lower limbs. If the legs are not well supplied with blood, especially during exercise, then pain may develop, a condition called claudication. The buildup of plaque may also affect other arteries in the body, including the renal and the mesenteric arteries.

Why do you get high cholesterol?

High cholesterol (especially high LDL cholesterol) is a major risk factor for heart attacks and coronary heart disease. Buildup of cholesterol results in the narrowing of arteries – a condition known as arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis results in restriction of blood flow. Minimizing fat intake in the diet helps in the management of cholesterol levels. To reduce cholesterol intake, it is essential that we limit foods that contain:

  • Cholesterol: Obtained from cheese, meat and animal foods

  • Saturated fat: Present in chocolate, dairy products, processed and deep-fried foods, baked foods, meat.

  • Trans-fat: These are found in processed and fried foods.

Being obese or overweight may also result in higher blood LDL levels. High cholesterol may also be influenced by genetics…extremely high levels of LDL manifests in an inherited condition known as hypercholesterolemia. Abnormal levels of cholesterol may also be triggered by other conditions such as:

  • Kidney or liver disease

  • Diabetes

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome

  • Underactive thyroid gland

  • Pregnancy and other conditions that raises the levels of hormones in the female

  • Medications that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol (such as anabolic steroids, corticosteroids and progestin).

Avoiding a high level of cholesterol

People with high cholesterol are advised to adopt some lifestyle modifications in order to reduce their cholesterol level to the normal. Adopting these changes will also minimize the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease:

  • Regular exercise

  • Avoiding smoking or tobacco products

  • Consumption of heart-healthy diet

  • Maintenance of a healthy weight.

  • References (2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)) (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 Edition, HHS and U.S. Department of Agriculture) (National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus) (Controlling Cholesterol with Statins, Food and Drug Administration)