Cholesterol is an organic compound, which is composed of lipids or fats and steroids and is naturally produced in the body as a wax like substance that is found in every cell of the body. Approximately 80% of the cholesterol is released by the liver and the rest comes from diet. Its dietary sources include animal meat, poultry, dairy products and organ meats like liver. No cholesterol is found in plant based foods.
Why is Cholesterol Important?
The human body is composed of millions of cells and cholesterol aids in maintaining their structural integrity by governing the permeability and fluidity of the membrane surrounding the cells. Besides, it aids in the synthesis of hormones like estrogen and testosterone, bile acids and vitamin D, which are all essential in their own way for the proper functioning of the body.
What Happens if the Cholesterol Levels in the Blood Go High?
One needs to stay extremely cautious to avoid exceeding the recommended levels of cholesterol, since high levels of cholesterol can act as one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Excess amounts of cholesterol can deposit itself on the walls of the arteries that carry blood, thus narrowing the passage and leading to the formation of blood clots or plagues. These clots impede blood flow, thereby leading to hypertension and atherosclerosis.
High blood pressure can in turn, overload the heart and kidney, which filters blood, thereby leading to heart diseases like coronary artery disease, angina, etc., and kidney failure. Blood flow to the brain can also slow down, thus leading to the weakening and bursting of blood vessels in the brain that manifests itself in the form of stroke and brain hemorrhage.
How Does Cholesterol Travel in Blood?
Cholesterol is a hydrophobic substance that cannot get solubilized in water and hence it cannot move in the bloodstream all by itself. It is transported through the bloodstream with the assistance of carriers molecules called lipoproteins that are composed of a protein membrane with lipids embedded inside these small packages.
Depending on the density of these lipoproteins, they are classified as low density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is also termed as “bad cholesterol” since it carries dietary cholesterol from the intestines and deposits it on the walls of the blood vessels.
On the other hand, HDL is termed as “good cholesterol” since it directs the cholesterol molecules from the body towards the liver, where they are metabolized and utilized for the production of hormones, vitamins, cell membranes, etc. Hence, it is crucial to maintain low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL in the body for a healthy heart.
Optimal Levels of Cholesterol in the Blood
People above the age of 20 years are advised to undergo a blood test called “lipid profile”, once in every five years to get an idea of total cholesterol levels, which is a sum of LDL levels and HDL levels and triglyceride levels. The National Institute of Health recommends maintaining total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl for staying healthy.
Cholesterol levels between 200-239 mg/dl are considered borderline high and those equal to and above 240 mg/dl are considered high and is termed as hypercholesterolemia. LDL levels are to be maintained lower than 100mg/ dl and HDL levels greater than 40 mg/dL to decrease your chances of developing heart disease.
Also, the levels of triglycerides, which is another form of fatty acid, is to be maintained below 130 mg/dl since levels exceeding 200 mg/dl can potentially raise the risk of heart diseases. However, the ratio of total cholesterol/HDL serves as the best indicator of cardiovascular diseases, whose optimal values for men and women are 4.5 or below and 4.0 or below respectively.
Factors That Affect Blood Cholesterol Levels
Certain factors can regulate the levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream and hence it is important to stay aware of them, in order to be able to prevent them from raising the levels of cholesterol in the body.
Some people are genetically predisposed to developing what is called as familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited disorder marked by lower levels of LDL receptors on the liver.
A diet rich in cholesterol and saturated tans fatty acids, most often found in animal meat and in plant oils like coconut, palm and cocoa can immediately raise the levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Hence, it is important to increase your intake of mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats found in fish, avocados, flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, etc.
Lack of physical activity
People who are physically inactive and spend a sedentary lifestyle have higher levels of LDL cholesterol in their bloodstream. It also makes you overweight, which in turn, lowers the levels of HDL and increases the levels of LDL in the body. Hence, it is important to stay physically fit by exercising regularly, at least for 30 minutes every day.
As you age, all the above-mentioned factors contribute to higher levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. This effect is more drastic in women, who experience a sudden dip in HDL levels and a rise in LDL levels after attaining menopause. Men above the age of 45 years and women above the age of 55 years are at a higher risk of developing heart diseases.
In addition, cigarette smoking and a high blood pressure, greater than 140/90 mm Hg are also considered as potent risk factors for developing cardiovascular diseases.
How to Treat High Cholesterol Levels?
Adapting healthy eating habits involving the intake of dietary fiber from food sources like whole grains, oats, organic fruits and vegetables and decreasing the consumption of saturated fats, salt, refined sugar, in conjunction with regular exercise like cardio, aerobics, walking, cycling, running, swimming, etc., can aid in both, managing weight and in maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol in the blood stream.
Replacing saturated fats with healthy, unsaturated fats can enable you to decrease the levels of LDL and increase the levels of HDL to about 60 mg/dl, which serves as a protective shield against heart diseases.
Cholesterol lowering drugs like statins, nicotinic acids, fibric acid derivatives, cholesterol absorption inhibitors and bile acid sequestrants aid in lowering LDL and triglyceride levels and increasing HDL levels in the bloodstream. However, lifestyle changes are a must for patients with high cholesterol levels since it helps in lowering the dosage of the prescribed drugs and also in keeping the side effects of these drugs at bay.
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