Often when people hear the word cholesterol, they think it’s something that’s bad for you. In fact, though, your body needs cholesterol to produce hormones (such as cortisol, testosterone, progesterone and estrogen) and vitamin D. The liver also uses cholesterol to make bile, which plays an important role in the processing and digestion of fats.
The problem with cholesterol is that if you have too much of it in your blood, it can combine with other substances to form plaque, which sticks to the walls of your arteries. A buildup of plaque (atherosclerosis) can lead to coronary artery disease, in which your coronary arteries become narrow or blocked, possibly leading to heart attack, stroke, and in some cases, death.
Unfortunately, high cholesterol has no symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect it.
At Westchester Health, many of our patients are worried about their cholesterol level and want to know what they can do to bring it down, but they don’t want to go on medication to do so. To help you become more informed about your cholesterol and your options for lowering it, we offer these guidelines and suggestions before it becomes a serious health concern.
What causes high cholesterol?
The most common cause of high cholesterol is an unhealthy lifestyle, which can include one or a combination of these factors:
- Unhealthy eating habits which can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, particularly large amounts of saturated fat found in red meat, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods, according to MedlinePlus. Another type of unhealthy fat is trans fat, found in fried and processed foods, which can also raise your LDL cholesterol.
- Lack of physical activity. Lots of sitting and little exercise (often in front of a TV or computer) lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. It also lowers your HDL cholesterol, especially in women. It also raises your LDL cholesterol.
- Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is an inherited form of high cholesterol.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar (diabetes) contributes to higher levels of a dangerous cholesterol known as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.
- Some chronic medical conditions
- Certain medicines
Factors that can increase your risk of high cholesterol
A number of things can raise your risk of developing high cholesterol, some of which you can control and some you can’t. These include:
- Your cholesterol levels tend to rise as you get older.
- High blood cholesterol can run in families.
- Being overweight or obese—a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater—puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
- Certain races may have an increased risk of high cholesterol. For example, African Americans typically have higher HDL and LDL cholesterol levels than Caucasians.
5 things you can do to lower your cholesterol without medication
Eat heart-healthy foods
A few changes in your diet can go a long way to reducing your cholesterol level and improving your heart health:
- Reduce saturated fats. Saturated fats, found primarily in red meat and full-fat dairy products, raise your total cholesterol. Decreasing your consumption of saturated fats can reduce your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats, listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” raise overall cholesterol levels and are often found in margarines and packaged cookies, crackers and cakes. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils starting January 1, 2021.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have many heart-healthy benefits, including reducing blood pressure. Foods with omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, herring, walnuts and flax seeds.
- Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Good sources are oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples and pears.
- Add whey protein. Whey protein, found in dairy products, may account for many of the health benefits attributed to dairy. Studies have shown that whey protein given as a supplement lowers both LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, as well as your blood pressure.
Exercise multiple times a week, or at a minimum, increase your physical activity
It’s a proven fact: exercise improves your cholesterol. In fact, even moderate physical activity can help raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. We suggest 30 minutes of exercise five times a week, or vigorous aerobic activity for 20 minutes three times a week. You can join a gym or workout routine but other options are to build exercise into your daily routine, such as:
- Taking a brisk walk during your lunch hour
- Taking the stairs rather than the elevator or escalator
- Walking to work or riding your bike there
- Raking leaves, shoveling snow, walking the dog
Quitting smoking not only significantly improves your HDL cholesterol level but also benefits all of your other bodily systems. Consider this:
- Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from a cigarette-induced spike.
- Within 3 months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve.
- Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker.
- Every state has a QuitLine. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to be connected to the one in your area and for local resources that can help you quit.
Carrying even a few extra pounds raises your cholesterol. If you’re overweight, losing several pounds will go a long way to improving your numbers, but even small changes can make a difference. If you drink sugary beverages, switch to water. Instead of reaching for chips or candy bars for a snack, choose air-popped popcorn or pretzels. If you crave something sweet, try yogurt or sorbet (sherbet).
Drink alcohol in moderation, or not at all
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. The sugar in alcohol can raise your cholesterol, and too much alcohol can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart failure and strokes.
Read our blogs on the subject
We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on medical conditions in the field of family medicine, which you can read here.
Informative articles we recommend
- 10 Natural Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol Levels
- 11 foods that lower cholesterol
- How to lower your cholesterol without drugs
- Lowering your cholesterol with therapeutic lifestyle changes
Concerned about your cholesterol? Please come see us.
At Westchester Health, our #1 goal is to help you stay healthy, and a very important part of your overall health is screening for high cholesterol. If you think your cholesterol numbers might be high and you’d like a blood test to find out, or want more information about pursuing a healthy lifestyle, or have questions about any aspect of your health, please contact us at (914) 232-1919. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.