Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is produced by the liver and circulates in our blood, and is also consumed through our diet. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells; however, too much can cause buildup in your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease.
Having high cholesterol does not, by itself, make a person feel sick. Over time, however, the deposits that accumulate in arteries can reduce or block blood flow and cause chest pain, heart attack, stroke, or other serious medical conditions.
The following guide from FastMed provides tips for managing cholesterol levels and will help you understand what causes high cholesterol levels.
What Causes High Cholesterol Levels?
In general, the liver produces all the cholesterol your body needs and persons who consume animal products such as meat, milk or eggs ingest additional amounts in their diet. Cholesterol combines with proteins to form what is known as a lipoprotein.
There are two main types of cholesterol. The first is a low-density lipoprotein, which is also known as LDL or “bad” cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol that tends to build up in the arteries and cause heart disease. The second type of cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein, which is also known as HDL or “good” cholesterol. Its job is to pick up excess cholesterol in the bloodstream and transport it back to the liver, so it does provide some protection against cardiovascular disease.
A third type of fat, known as triglycerides, is naturally produced in the body, however, it is also formed when we consume too many calories, especially from high-carbohydrate foods. Triglycerides are stored in our fat cells and released when we need extra energy, such as between meals. Although heredity can make you more susceptible to developing high cholesterol, most people develop high cholesterol as a result of unhealthy lifestyle choices.
What Contributes to High Cholesterol Risk?
Factors you can control, such as diet and lifestyle, are typically what contributes to high cholesterol. Risk factors include:
- Eating a diet high in cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats
- Having a body mass index greater than 30
- A lack of physical activity
- Having diabetes
Managing cholesterol levels also becomes more important as we get older since our body chemistry changes, and the liver becomes less efficient at removing cholesterol from our blood.
How Do I Know If I Need to Worry About Managing High Cholesterol?
A provider can perform a fasting blood test known as a lipid profile to determine if you have high cholesterol. Although your provider will go over your results in detail, the following numbers are important to know when managing high cholesterol:
Total Cholesterol Levels
A total cholesterol level less than 200 mg/dL is optimal. Total cholesterol between 200 and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline. Total cholesterol over 240 mg/dL is considered high.
Goals for LDL cholesterol levels vary based on an individual’s health status and risk factors:
- Individuals with diabetes or heart disease: less than 70 mg/dL
- Individuals at risk for heart disease: less than 100 mg/dL
- Individuals with no heart disease or significant risk factors: 100-129 mg/dL
HDL levels above 60 mg/dL are considered optimal.
Ideally, triglyceride levels should be below 150 mg/dL.
What Causes High HDL?
Depending on what causes high HDL, elevated levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol may correlate to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle changes, including increased physical activity, quitting smoking, and improving your diet, are an effective wait to naturally raise HDL levels and lower your cardiovascular risk.
Certain medications used to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides may also increase HDL cholesterol; however, it is unclear if the increase provides the same cardiovascular benefits as having naturally elevated HDL. The benefits of HDL also seem to decrease when levels exceed 100 mg/dL. This is rare, however, and is usually seen in individuals with genetic lipid or metabolic abnormalities and individuals suffering from chronic alcoholism, biliary cirrhosis, hyperthyroidism, or who use certain medications.
How Is High Cholesterol Treated?
If diet and lifestyle changes do not lower your cholesterol to acceptable levels, your provider may recommend one or more medications. Statins are the most commonly used cholesterol medications and work by blocking a substance that the liver uses to produce cholesterol.
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