Cholesterol is a fatty substance present in your body cells. It is also required for the production of vitamin D and certain hormones. However, higher cholesterol levels can build up on your blood vessel walls, narrowing them and increasing the risk of heart diseases and stroke.

While high cholesterol levels can be inherited, it is mainly due to unhealthy dietary and lifestyle choices. And the best part is that these causes are treatable and preventable.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and, in some cases, medications can help reduce high cholesterol. Besides, high cholesterol is a silent condition, having no symptoms in the majority of the patients. It is thus essential to get the levels checked regularly.

High Cholesterol and Its Impact on Our Body- Short Term And Long Term

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver. Some of the functions of cholesterol include making hormones, vitamin D, and being a component of liver secretion (bile acids) that aids in food digestion.

As cholesterol is non-soluble in water, it travels in your blood with the help of substances known as lipoproteins. These substances are made up of protein and fat and carry triglycerides and cholesterol.

There are two main types of lipoproteins in your body:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): They carry cholesterol from the liver to your body cells. As it promotes cholesterol build-up in your blood vessels, cholesterol bound to LDL is known as LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C) or bad cholesterol.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This lipoprotein promotes the removal of excess cholesterol by carrying it from your cells to the liver, where it is metabolized. Cholesterol bound to this lipoprotein is known as HDL-cholesterol (HDL-C) or good cholesterol. 

A balance between LDL-C and HDL-C is essential for the functioning of cells. However, if the LDL-C builds up in your vessel wall, it may narrow and stiffen your blood vessels, resulting in a condition known as atherosclerosis.

So, high LDL cholesterol can eventually damage your blood vessels, resulting in heart diseases and stroke.

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Impact of High Cholesterol Levels

Here are some short- and long-term effects of high LDL cholesterol levels on your body.

Heart and Lungs

As discussed before, excess LDL-C levels can accumulate on blood vessel walls, clogging them and making them stiff. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. 

Your heart is made up of four chambers. The right two chambers receive impure blood from your body and push it through arteries to the lungs, where it is purified. The left chambers of the heart receive this pure blood and push it through the arteries to other body parts.

In atherosclerosis, blood cannot flow smoothly, and your heart has to work harder to push blood through them. 

Plaque formation in the blood vessels can reduce blood supply to your heart, depriving it of nutrients and oxygen. When this happens to your heart muscles, it may result in chest pain or angina. This is a short-term disruption and a warning that you may be at risk for a heart attack. If this affects blood vessels supplying your brain or in the brain, it can result in a stroke.

Also, plaque can affect blood vessels supplying your limbs and digestive tract, resulting in a condition known as a peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Endocrinal Glands

Hormonal glands use cholesterol to produce hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Abnormal cholesterol levels can affect the functioning of these glands.

However, the opposite is also true. Hormones can also influence your cholesterol levels. For instance, when estrogen levels increase during a menstrual cycle, it boosts HDL-C levels and lowers LDL-C levels. This can be one reason why the risk of heart attack increases in post-menopausal women when estrogen levels drop.

Low thyroid levels (hypothyroidism) increase LDL and total cholesterol levels. High thyroid hormone levels (hyperthyroidism) have the reverse effect. Low testosterone and growth hormone levels can also raise LDL cholesterol levels.

Brain and Nerves

Cholesterol is a vital part of your brain. About 25% of the body’s cholesterol supply goes to the brain. Here, cholesterol plays an important role in the production and protection of nerve cells. 

Nerves connect the brain to the other body parts and vice versa. By enhancing the health of nerve cells, cholesterol boosts the connection of your brain with the body.

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But excess LDL-C can cause plaque formation, reducing blood supply to the brain. All this can result in a stroke, which can impair your memory, swallowing, movement, and speech.

High cholesterol levels can also cause the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, a protein that is seen in people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Digestive system

Cholesterol plays an important role in bile production, a substance that aids in breaking down food and absorption of nutrients from the intestines. However, high cholesterol levels in the bile trigger the formation of crystals and stones in your gallbladder, which is a painful condition.

Monitoring your cholesterol levels with blood tests and managing them can lower the risk of heart diseases and other complications.

What Is Normal Cholesterol Level by Age?

So, what levels of cholesterol are considered high?

Adults

Total cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: Less than 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: Total cholesterol level between 200 and 239 mg/dL
  • High: Total cholesterol level of 240 mg/dL and above

LDL cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: Less than 100 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 130—159 mg/dL
  • High: 190 mg/dL or higher

HDL cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: 60 mg/dL or higher
  • Borderline low: 41— 59 mg/dL
  • Low: Less than 40 mg/dL

Children

Total cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: Less than 170 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: Total cholesterol level between 170 and 199 mg/dL
  • High: Total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL and above

LDL cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: Less than 110 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 110—129 mg/dL
  • High: 130 mg/dL or higher

HDL cholesterol levels:

  • Normal: 45 mg/dL or higher
  • Borderline low: 40— 45 mg/dL
  • Low: Less than 40 mg/dL

Symptoms of High Cholesterol

Usually, high levels of LDL-C levels usually do not cause any symptoms. You may thus be unaware in case the levels are high. Getting cholesterol levels regularly checked is the only way to pick it up early.

When present, some common symptoms can be fatty bumps on the skin or grayish-white rings around the corneas in the eyes.

What Causes High Cholesterol?

Some common causes of high LDL cholesterol levels are:

  • Consuming an unhealthy diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity or overweight
  • Smoking
  • Presence of other conditions such as diabetes
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How to Maintain Cholesterol Levels?

High LDL cholesterol levels and low HDL cholesterol levels can cause complications such as heart attack and strokes. But the best part is that lifestyle changes can help prevent the risk of these complications.

Here are some changes that can help you get started.

Food 

Your doctor may advise the following changes in the diet to improve your cholesterol levels:

Avoid foods rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, including:

  • Organ meats and red meats
  • Processed foods rich in palm oil, cocoa butter, or coconut oil
  • High-fat dairy products such as milk, full-fat cheese, butter, and ice-cream
  • Deep-fried foods such as onion rings, potato chips, and fried chicken
  • Baked food items such as muffins and cookies
  • Egg yolks

Healthy foods that you can consume:

  • Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, and herring
  • Nuts such as walnuts and almonds
  • Seeds such as flax seeds
  • Avocados
  • High-fiber foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains

Generally, opt for broiled, roasted, baked, or grilled food instead of fried and junk foods.

Physical Activity

Exercise is beneficial for your overall health. It can also boost your HDL-C levels. Try and get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises a day for at least five days or 150 minutes a week.

Some examples of exercise include swimming, running, walking, and jogging. 

You can also include strength training with exercise bands, weights, or body-weight resistance for two days a week.

Lifestyle Changes 

Other lifestyle changes that can help are:

  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight, especially around your waist
  • Avoid excess alcohol consumption

Final Thoughts

Cholesterol plays various vital roles in your body, such as producing vitamin D and certain hormones. It is also present in all your body cells. So, cholesterol is not all bad.

There are two main types of cholesterol based on the type of particles they are attached to: HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The latter, LDL cholesterol, promotes the build-up of plaques in your blood vessels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular complications.

Fortunately, lifestyle changes such as eating healthy, exercising regularly, maintain a healthy weight, and quitting smoking can help lower cholesterol levels. 

Monitor your cholesterol levels and carry out lifestyle modifications to manage them and prevent associated complications.

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