While most people of a certain age are generally aware that standard blood tests measure cholesterol, it’s worth understanding a more about what is being measured and why.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance created in the liver, and its presence is required throughout the human body to make vitamin D, hormones, and bile. A high cholesterol reading may indicate that your body has more cholesterol than it needs, which can result in heart attack or stroke.

liver-grays-anatomySome are predisposed to high cholesterol due to genetics; if one or both of your parents had high cholesterol, you are more likely to have it as well, and so should be checked earlier. While less than a quarter of cholesterol in the body is derived from food, levels can be managed by through diet and exercise, and medication like statins.

Cholesterol is delivered from the liver throughout the body via lipoproteins. Low density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol to where it’s needed and are commonly referred to as bad cholesterol. Elevated levels of LDLs are dangerous. High density lipoproteins (HDL) return cholesterol back to the liver and are referred to as good cholesterol. Having a high HDL levels is rarely a cause of concern in itself. If there’s too much cholesterol being delivered by LDL proteins, the excess will be deposited into arteries as plaque, a combination of cholesterol and fat.

What Are Triglycerides?

A cholesterol reading is actually a combination of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. Triglycerides a product of fat and excess sugar that the body stores for future use. High triglycerides are an indicator of obesity and diabetes.

Because insulin is needed to store the fat and excess sugar, its levels tend to rise along with triglycerides. Increased insulin affects the pancreas by suppressing production of glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that performs the opposite function of insulin, but putting sugar back into the blood to be used as energy. For this reason, a high triglyceride level can be an early diabetes indicator. Triglyceride levels are included in the net cholesterol level because the approach for reducing triglycerides and cholesterol is the same.

Symptoms and effects of high cholesterol

Arteries narrowed due to plaque will reduce blood flow in the body. Restricted blood flow can result in a number of danger symptoms and diseases, including the following:

  • When blood flow is restricted to the heart, symptoms include chest pain and pressure, and frequently a mistaken feeling of indigestion.
  • Plaque also increases the likelihood of blood clots in the arteries, which can block the flow of blood altogether and increase the risk of heart attack.
  • Blocked or restricted blood flow can also deprive the brain of oxygen, causing a stroke. Symptoms can include weakness, numbness, inability to speak, see, or move.
  • Restricted blood flow to arms and legs may result in numbness, pain, or infection, including gangrene (death of muscle tissue).
  • Your other organs may also be affected, including kidneys, stomach, gallbladder, and intestines, resulting in pain, nausea, vomiting, bloody stool, and gallstones (more than 80% of gallstones are cholesterol stones).
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After receiving a high cholesterol reading from my doctor, I put together a plan to lower my cholesterol to a healthy level naturally, without medication.

Understanding of my own health
Prior to my high cholesterol reading, I was never conscious of nor did I care about connections between cholesterol and blood pressure with heart disease.  As I entered my 40s, I had only a basic understanding of my own health readings.

American Heart Association Cookbook

American Heart Association Cookbook

My only understanding of cholesterol was that there were good and bad types, and that my good cholesterol was high and bad type was low. My blood pressure has always been low. One side of my family had no history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, while the other side of my family was unknown.

Given my basic understanding, I carried on with the expectation that I was at low risk for developing any heart problems or symptoms.

Note: When a significant portion of your family medical history is unknown, the safest approach is to assume it’s bad.

My General Physical Results
The results from my most recent general physical blood work were, surprisingly, suddenly, negative. My results included the following:

Item Reading
Blood pressure High
Total cholesterol High
Bad cholesterol (LDL) High
Good cholesterol (HDL) Normal
Triglycerides Normal
Weight Normal

While my doctor advised me to go on a reduced salt diet to lower my blood pressure, after my blood work results came in, he said that he was much more concerned about my cholesterol reading. I had four months to lower my LDL cholesterol to an acceptable level, or have to start taking statins to lower it for me.

My Approach to Lowering My High Cholesterol Reading

The first thing I did in response was to put together a plan to lower my high cholesterol reading.

  1. Learn more what having high cholesterol means and what affects it
  2. Determine my baseline – take measurements that show where I am right now
  3. Set goals that relate to lowering my cholesterol
  4. Determine what I have to improve in my diet, exercise, etc.
  5. Look for tools to help
  6. Measure/review/improve – check my progress towards my goals, figure out what needs to be adjusted, and set new goals
  7. Have my cholesterol remeasured

Over the coming weeks I’ll provide more information on how I address each step to improve my heart health, lower heart risk, and improve my high cholesterol reading.

Photo credit: Daniel Oines

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