Cholesterol is often vilified in public media as the enemy of heart health, but that perception doesn’t account for the whole story. While dangerous in excess, cholesterol is essential to our bodies for manufacturing certain substances, like reproductive hormones and vitamin D. While there are many factors that influence cardiovascular health, knowing your cholesterol numbers is crucial to maintaining a healthy heart and preventing heart attacks or strokes.

What is cholesterol?

Although we tend to think of cholesterol as a fat, it is actually structurally related to hormones, and provides the chemical basis for the body’s production of crucial steroid hormones. Glucocorticoids, estrogen, and testosterone are all derived from a healthy supply of cholesterol. Cholesterol is manufactured mainly by the liver, the result of a complicated metabolic function that utilizes different types of dietary fat. We produce two main types of cholesterol, the protective HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and the more destructive LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. HDL is usually referred to as “good” cholesterol, because it regulates the uptake of LDL, usually called “bad” cholesterol, due to its propensity for forming dangerous, sticky plaque within artery walls.

What influences cholesterol formation?

Cholesterol levels vary greatly from person to person, depending on a variety of factors, including diet, lifestyle choices, age, exercise, and family genetics. Certain risk factors can promote an unhealthy balance of the two cholesterol types, potentially leading to the development of heart disease. Some of the major risk factors are: -Smoking -Drinking alcohol -Sedentary lifestyle -A diet heavy in animal-based proteins and few vegetables or fruits -Obesity -Age (risk tends to increase with age) -Menopausal status (post-menopausal hormone changes can lead to significant cholesterol changes) -Diabetes -Family history of dyslipidemia or early heart disease The best way to determine if you may be at risk for developing cardiovascular disease is to have routine health physicals that include a cholesterol total test. A complete lipid panel includes counts of both HDL and LDL, as well as triglyceride levels, all of which are then used to create a “risk ratio” for heart disease. Baseline cholesterol testing can help you develop a plan to intercept dangerous lipid levels before they have a chance to do damage.

What can I do about high cholesterol?

If your cholesterol total test returns undesirable results, there are a number of things that can be done to reverse the condition. Your doctor may prescribe cholesterol medicine to help your body eliminate excess cholesterol and reduce the risk ratio. You’ll need to do your part as well. Adopt an exercise routine that gets you moving at least thirty minutes per day, and at least three times per week. Trade red meat for lean proteins like fish or chicken breast, and start to work fiber into every meal. A healthy helping of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like oatmeal can significantly reduce cholesterol levels over time, and restore a better balance of HDL. Some heart-healthy supplements have also been shown to assist in restoring HDL to protective levels, such as fish or krill oil and CoQ-10. Once you have established a new heart-healthy regimen, be sure to follow up with regular cholesterol testing as recommended by your doctor.

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