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What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance synthesized by the liver in your body and is naturally present in your blood. It is used by your body to build healthy cells, produce hormones, vitamins, and bile (to digest fat). Cholesterol is also obtained from the food we eat, such as meat, cheese, eggs, and dairy products. Presence of high levels of cholesterol in the blood is known as hypercholesterolemia, also called high cholesterol.

Types of Cholesterol

There are two main types of cholesterol – high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is good for our bodies, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is considered “bad” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol as it removes bad cholesterol from the bloodstream. It carries cholesterol that you do not require back to the liver, and the liver breaks it down so it can be excreted out of your body. LDL cholesterol is called “bad” cholesterol as it causes significant plaque formation in the arteries hindering blood flow to vital organs such as the heart and brain. Elevated LDL cholesterol can increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.

What Problems Can Cholesterol Cause?

Picture of Cholesterol

Increased levels of cholesterol can cause accumulation of cholesterol-rich fatty deposits in arteries called plaque. The plaque can cause arteries to become blocked or narrow resulting in significant obstruction of blood flow. This obstruction can hamper the flow of oxygen-rich blood to crucial organs, such as the heart. If the flow of blood from the coronary arteries to your heart muscle is reduced or blocked, it can cause heart attack or chest pain. High cholesterol can also lead to build-up of plaque in other arteries of your body, such as the brain. When plaque obstructs arteries that supply blood to the brain, it can cause a stroke.

Risk Factors for Cholesterol

Factors that can increase your chances of developing high cholesterol include:

  • Obesity or overweight
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor diet
  • Advanced age
  • Smoking
  • Family history
  • Diabetes

Complications of Cholesterol

Some of the health complications of high cholesterol include:

  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • High blood pressure
  • Peripheral arterial disease
  • Carotid artery disease

Diagnosis of Cholesterol

High cholesterol does not have specific symptoms and can only be detected through regular blood tests, such as a fasting cholesterol test, simple cholesterol test, and low-density cholesterol (LDL) test.

Treatment for Cholesterol

High cholesterol can be treated by making healthy lifestyle changes. The various lifestyle changes include:

  • Eating a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, lean meat, fish, and high-fiber grains and bread
  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercising regularly and walking for at least 30 minutes a day
  • Losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Consuming alcohol in moderation
  • Eating a low-salt diet
  • Avoiding or limiting foods that are high in saturated fats, such as red meat and processed foods
  • Stress management

If your cholesterol continues to remain high, your doctor may prescribe medications such as statins to block production of cholesterol from the liver and cholesterol absorption inhibitors which help to reduce cholesterol accumulation in your body. Sometimes drugs containing a combination of both can be used.

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