Cholesterol can be both good and bad, so its important to learn what cholesterol is, how it affects your health and how to manage your blood cholesterol levels. Understanding the facts about cholesterol will help you take better care of your heart so you can live a healthier life, reducing your risk for heart attack and stroke.
WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?
Cholesterol is a soft, white, waxy substance found among the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream and in all your bodys cells. Despite its bad reputation, cholesterol is essential for life. Good cholesterol (HDL) is used as a structural component of nerve and brain cells. The body needs cholesterol for digesting dietary fats, making hormones, building cell walls, and other important processes. But a high level of cholesterol in the blood hypercholesterolemia is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack. Bad cholesterol (LDL) is easily deposited in the arteries, narrowing the diameter and impeding blood flow to the heart and other organs. Our liver makes all the cholesterol we need, so if we eat a lot more we get too much circulating in our blood.
WHY HIGH BLOOD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS ARE DANGEROUS:
Cholesterol, like fat, cannot move around the bloodstream on its own because it does not mix with water. The bloodstream carries cholesterol in particles called lipoproteins that are like blood-borne cargo trucks delivering cholesterol to various body tissues to be used, stored or excreted. But too much of this circulating cholesterol can injure arteries, especially the coronary ones that supply the heart. This leads to accumulation of cholesterol-laden plaque in vessel linings, a condition called atherosclerosis. When blood flow to the heart is impeded, the heart muscle becomes starved for oxygen, causing chest pain (angina). If a blood clot completely obstructs a coronary artery affected by atherosclerosis, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) or death can occur.
AUSTRALIANS AT RISK:
Cardiovascular disease is still Australias greatest health problem affecting over 3,6 million Australians, so it touches most families. One Australian dies every ten minutes of heart disease, stroke or blood vessel disease. According to the National Heart Foundation more than six million adults aged 25 and over have high blood cholesterol levels of 5.5 mmol/L or more in Australia. On its own, an elevated blood cholesterol level is not necessarily a problem, but coupled with one or more other risk factors for heart disease, it is often the straw that breaks the camels back.
Certain risk factors increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Nine out of ten Australians have at least one modifiable risk factor, while 26% of men and 21% of women have three or more of the following risk factors:
High blood pressure
High blood cholesterol
Insufficient physical activity
Excessive alcohol intake
Many people have multiple risk factors for heart disease and the level of risk increases with the number of risk factors. By reducing these risk factors you can largely prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease. It is therefore, very important to know what your cholesterol levels are and to keep them at a healthy level before you have any problems.
DOES PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AFFECT CHOLESTEROL?
Regular physical activity increases HDL cholesterol in some people. Higher HDL cholesterol is linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Physical activity can also help control weight, diabetes and high blood pressure. Aerobic physical activity raises your heart and breathing rates. Regular moderate to intense physical activity such as brisk walking, jogging and swimming also condition your heart and lungs.
OTHER FACTORS THAT AFFECT BLOOD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS:
Heredity high cholesterol often runs in families. Even though specific genetic causes have been identified in only a minority of cases, genes still play a role in influencing blood cholesterol levels. If your parents have high cholesterol, you need to be tested to see if your cholesterol levels are also elevated.
Age and Gender before menopause, women tend to have total cholesterol levels lower than men at the same age. Cholesterol levels naturally rise as men and women age. Menopause is often associated with increases in LDL cholesterol in women.
Stress studies have not shown stress to be directly linked to cholesterol levels. But experts say that because people sometimes eat fatty foods to console themselves when under stress, this can cause higher blood cholesterol.
Excess weight being overweight tends to increase blood cholesterol levels. Losing weight has shown to help lower levels. A greater risk of increased cholesterol levels occurs when that extra weight is centred in the abdominal region, as opposed to the legs or buttocks.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF HIGH CHOLESTEROL?
High cholesterol levels do not usually produce any symptoms. Most people only discover they have it when they have their blood cholesterol levels measured as part of a physical check up.
WHAT IS HIGH BLOOD CHOLESTEROL?
Cholesterol levels are determined through chemical analysis of a blood sample taken from a finger prick or from a vein in the arm. You should have your cholesterol tested every three to five years, more often if you have high cholesterol levels.
BLOOD CHOLESTEROL VS. DIETARY CHOLESTEROL
It may surprise you to know that our bodies make all the cholesterol we need. When your doctor takes a blood test to measure your cholesterol level, the doctor is actually measuring the amount of circulating cholesterol in your blood, or your blood cholesterol level. About 85% of your blood cholesterol level is endogenous, which means it is produced by your body. The other 15% or so comes from an external source your diet.
The good news is that cholesterol can be brought under control by changes in the lifestyle such as diet, losing weight and an exercise program. But some risk factors cannot be controlled. These include age (45 years or older for men and 55 years or older for women) and family history of early heart disease (father or brother stricken before age 55; mother or sister stricken before age 65). Consult your doctor for specific advice if you believe you are in a high risk category. In severe cases your doctor may recommend cholesterol-lowering drugs if the condition cannot be controlled by lifestyle changes.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR BAD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS LOW AND GOOD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS HIGH?
Eat less fat. A diet thats high in saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and puts you into a higher risk category for heart attack and stroke. All animal foods contain some ready made cholesterol, but that is only a problem if they are also high in saturated fat. For example: prawns contain cholesterol, but have virtually no saturated fat, so they are fine in moderation if they are not battered, fried or crumbed. Eggs have cholesterol too, but they are not rich in saturated fat, so it is fine to enjoy an egg occasionally, but dont fry it with sausages and fatty bacon.
ACHIEVE AND MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT
The more you weigh, the more your body stores fat and cholesterol. Eat more fruits, vegetables and soy products, more wholegrain breads and cereals, more seafood (Omega-3 fats are very healthy.) And choose low-fat dairy products and lean meat.
TIPS FOR EATING OUT
You can eat out and eat healthy too. Many restaurants offer delicious low-fat, low cholesterol meals. Eating less fat (especially less saturated fat) and less cholesterol is important for your health. Avoid fired, basted, braised, au gratin, crispy, escalloped, pan-fried, sautéed, stewed or stuffed foods that are high in fat. Instead, look for steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached or roasted foods. If youre not sure about a certain dish, ask your server how its prepared. Even if dishes low in saturated fats and cholesterol arent on the menu, you may still be able to get a healthy meal, because any restaurants will prepare foods to order. If youre not sure about a particular restaurant, phone before you go. Steer clear of high-sodium foods that include those that are pickled, in cocktail sauce, smoked, in broth or au jus, in a tomato base, or in soy or teriyaki sauce.
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