It seems like most weeks, there’s at least one news story talking about the negative effects of cholesterol. And in fact, high levels of LDL — so-called “bad” cholesterol — can pose some really serious and even life-threatening medical risks. Medications can help lower bad cholesterol levels, but there are lifestyle changes you can make too, and sometimes, these changes can help you avoid medicines or at least require lower doses in order to keep your cholesterol at healthy levels. Here are three things you can do starting today.
But first — what is cholesterol, anyway?
Cholesterol is a waxy lipid (fat-like) substance that’s found naturally in your cells — and in fact, we need some cholesterol to metabolize food and turn it into energy and other products our bodies need to function properly. But when our blood contains too much, the excess cholesterol ends up sticking to the insides of our blood vessels, particularly our arteries. As it builds up, it can block the flow of blood — and that’s what leads to heart attacks. In addition to increasing your risks for heart attacks and heart disease, high cholesterol can also elevate your risks for peripheral artery disease, strokes, and some forms of dementia.
High cholesterol rarely causes symptoms, and many people may not know they have high cholesterol until a serious event like a heart attack occurs. The good news is, measuring cholesterol levels in your blood is really simple, and in fact, all it takes is a simple blood test. Depending on your age, you should have your cholesterol checked when you have your annual physical, first to make sure your levels are within normal ranges, and also to help your doctor track subtle changes from year to year, which can make it easier to spot early signs of cholesterol-related problems. Now for those three changes you can — and should — make to lower your cholesterol levels.
1. Eat foods that are healthy for your heart
One of the most important things you can do to reduce levels of bad cholesterol is to watch your intake of fats. Some fats, like trans-fats (also called partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil), are very unhealthy and very bad for your heart and your cholesterol levels. In fact, they’re so bad for us, the FDA ruled no products containing trans-fats can be sold after January 2021. In addition to eliminating trans-fats, you should also reduce the amount of saturated fats you eat. These fats are found primarily in red meat and full-fat dairy (like whole milk products), and they’re also found in many prepared foods. It’s not all bad news for fats, though. In fact, increasing your intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, herring, walnuts, and flaxseed, among other foods) can improve your heart health while also helping to reduce your blood pressure. Aside from fats, it’s important to increase your intake of soluble fiber in foods like oatmeal, apples, and kidney beans. Soluble fiber keeps cholesterol from getting into your bloodstream in the first place.
2. Be more physically active
Try to be active on most days of the week, even if it means just taking a walk during your lunch break. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise (like brisk walking) every week. That sounds like a lot — but it’s really only a half hour, five days a week. Of course, exercising more can increase those benefits, but you don’t want to overdo it. And if you’re pretty sedentary, it’s a really good idea to come in for an office visit first so we can make sure you’re ready to begin a new exercise program. To stay motivated, try keeping a chart to track your progress, find an exercise “buddy,” and try out different activities to find something you really look forward to doing. (There’s an added benefit to these first two recommendations: Both can help you lose excess pounds, another important lifestyle change that can help reduce your cholesterol levels.)
3. Quit smoking
Kicking the tobacco habit has lots of benefits for your health, including lowering your cholesterol levels. When you stop smoking, you can begin to see benefits within about a half hour as your blood pressure recovers from the immediate effects of smoke entering your lungs. And after just three months of being tobacco-free, your circulatory system and lungs are already well on the road to improved health and function. And the benefits just keep mounting.
Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels can have far-reaching benefits for your health. As a top-ranked doctor in St. Clair Shores, Dr. Vincent R.C. Maribao can help. If you're not sure what your cholesterol levels are or if you need help managing high cholesterol, contact the practice today.