What Is High Cholesterol?

high cholesterol alarm

High Cholesterol

There are many different types of fat found in the human body. “Cholesterol” is one of the types of fat found in the human body. “High cholesterol”, also known as Hypercholesterolemia is a disease that results from having too much of the fat Cholesterol in the body. In addition to cholesterol, Triglyceride is another type of fat found in the human body. While having too much of the fats cholesterol and triglyceride in the body can cause health problems, the human body does need these fats to do many important things. Fat in the form of cholesterol for example is used to make the envelops that surround and protect all of the body’s cells. Fat in the form of cholesterol is also used to make many of the hormones that are critical to human survival.

Because cholesterol is so important to humans, the human body is actually able to make most of the cholesterol that it needs to function on it’s own. So, most cholesterol that humans consume as a part of their diet ends up being “extra” cholesterol that the body really doesn’t need. Much of the extra cholesterol that the body really doesn’t need then just ends up collecting in the blood stream. As cholesterol builds in the blood stream, plaques made of cholesterol start to form along the walls of the blood vessels.

high cholesterol

Cholesterol travels in the bloodstream using “vehicles” called lipoproteins. There are 2 different types of lipoprotein that carry cholesterol around in the bloodstream. One is called “LDL” or Low Density Lipoprotein. The other is called HDL or High Density Lipoprotein. LDL’s job is to “deliver”, or to dump cholesterol around to different parts of the body. HDL’s job is to “collect”, or to scavenge cholesterol from different parts of the body.  Because LDL delivers “extra” cholesterol to different parts of the body,  it is frequently referred to as the “bad cholesterol”. This is because LDL cholesterol delivers the extra cholesterol in the bloodstream that makes unhealthy plaques along the walls of blood vessels. HDL cholesterol is frequently referred to as the “good cholesterol” because it collects or scavenges extra cholesterol from the blood stream, helping to breakdown unhealthy plaques that collect along blood vessels walls.

What Are High Triglycerides?

Fats like cholesterol and triglyceride serve a number of important functions in the human body. Triglycerides for example are an important source of energy for the human body. Like cholesterol, triglycerides also travel in the bloodstream using “vehicles” called lipoproteins. The lipoprotein that transports triglyceride around in the bloodstream is called Very Low Density Lipoprotein or “VLDL”. Just like high cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels in the bloodstream can be dangerous. This is because high triglyceride levels in the bloodstream can also cause plaques made of triglyceride to form along blood vessel walls.

Why Are High Cholesterol and High Triglycerides Dangerous?

high cholesterol vessel plaque

Normal blood vessel (left) and narrowed blood vessel (right)

High cholesterol is dangerous because too much cholesterol in the bloodstream causes cholesterol plaques to form along the walls of blood vessels. High triglycerides are dangerous because too much triglyceride in the bloodstream causes triglyceride plaques to form along the walls of blood vessels. As cholesterol and/or triglyceride plaques form and become larger, the fats from these plaques can seep into the walls of blood vessels. This can then make the blood vessels hard and narrow. As blood vessels harden and become more narrow, less blood can flow through them. This may result in the organ(s) that these blood vessels are supplying blood to getting less blood flow. Less blood flow to these organs means fewer nutrients and less oxygen for them.

When the heart is not receiving enough blood, nutrients and oxygen, a heart attack can result. When the brain is not receiving enough blood, nutrients and oxygen, a stroke can result.  Cholesterol and triglyceride plaques in the blood vessels aren’t just dangerous because they can cause hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels however. These plaques are also dangerous because they can rupture, releasing dangerous blood clots into the circulation that can damage organs like the brain, lungs and heart.

What Are The Symptoms of High Cholesterol and High Triglycerides?

High cholesterol xanthomas

“Xanthoma” cholesterol deposits beneath the skin.

For the vast majority of people with high cholesterol and/or high triglycerides, there are no symptoms. Some people that have rare genetic forms of high cholesterol may develop lumps under their skin. When this occurs, these lumps are composed of cholesterol. They are however extremely rare.

How Are High Cholesterol and High Triglycerides Diagnosed?

high cholesterol blood testHigh cholesterol and high triglycerides are diagnosed by a blood test called a “Lipid Panel”. A lipid panel measures the amount of fat in the blood. Cholesterol is a form of fat. So, a lipid panel measures how much total cholesterol is in the blood. A lipid panel also measures how much of the total cholesterol in the blood is travelling as part of LDL, or the “bad cholesterol”, and how much is travelling as part of HDL, or the “good cholesterol”. Additionally, lipid panels measure levels of the fat triglyceride in the blood. Some lipid panels may also measure how much of the triglyceride in the blood is travelling as part of VLDL.

What Should My Cholesterol and Triglycerides Be?

cholesterol guidelines

Cholesterol Guidelines

For people over the age of 20, total blood cholesterol levels should be less than 200. Additionally, LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 130 and HDL cholesterol levels should be higher than 50. The higher the HDL levels are the better. This is because HDL is the “vehicle” that removes cholesterol from the blood; lowering total blood cholesterol levels in the process. Like LDL levels, triglyceride levels should also be less than 200.

How Can High Cholesterol Be Prevented?

High cholesterol can be caused by a number of things. They include a poor diet, obesity, inactivity, family history and age.

    • Because a poor diet can cause high cholesterol, a number of dietary changes can help to prevent high blood cholesterol. They include;
      high cholesterol fiber rich foods

      High Fiber Foods

      1. Limiting in-take of foods rich in saturated fats.
      2. Limiting in-take of foods rich in trans fats.
      3. Limiting in-take of foods rich in cholesterol.
      4. Eating foods rich in fiber.
      5. Eating foods rich in unsaturated fats.
      •  Maintaining a healthy weight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 18.5-24.9 can help to prevent high blood cholesterol.
      • Regular exercise can help to prevent high blood cholesterol. This means getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week; 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week or a combination of the two.
      • High blood cholesterol levels can be prevented by testing for them and then treating them if present.
        1. Men at high risk for heart disease should start having their blood cholesterol checked regularly as early as age 20.
        2. Women at high risk for heart disease should start having their blood cholesterol checked regularly as early as age 30.
        3. Men at low risk for heart disease should start having their blood cholesterol checked regularly at age 35.
        4. Women at low risk for heart disease should start having their blood cholesterol checked regularly at age 45.

How Can High Triglycerides Be Prevented?

High triglycerides can be caused by a number of things. They include a poor diet, obesity, inactivity, diabetes, thyroid disease and drinking alcohol.

  • Because a poor diet can cause high blood triglyceride levels, a number of dietary changes can help to prevent high blood triglyceride levels. They include;
    1. Eating a moderately low fat diet that includes no more than 25%-30% of daily calories coming from fat.
    2. Limiting the daily in-take of sugar to no more than 100 grams for women and 150 grams for men.
    3. Limiting in-take of foods rich in saturated fats.
    4. Limiting in-take of foods rich in trans fats.
    5. Eating foods that are rich in fiber.
    6. Eating foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
    7. Eating foods rich in unsaturated fats.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight with a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5-24.9 can help to prevent high blood triglycerides.
  • Regular exercise can help to prevent high blood triglyceride levels. This means getting a least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week; 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week or a combination of the two.
    high cholesterol and moderate alcohol consumption

    Moderate alcohol consumption

  • Drinking alcohol in moderation can help to prevent high blood triglycerides. Moderate alcohol use for healthy adult women of all ages means no more than one drink per day. Moderate alcohol use for healthy adult men older than 65 also means no more than one drink per day. For healthy adult men younger than 65 however, moderate alcohol use means no more than two drinks per day. And if you are wondering what exactly “one drink” means? For beer, one drink means 12 fluid ounces. For wine, one drink means 5 fluid ounces. For distilled spirits (80 proof), one drink means 1.5 fluid ounces

How Is High Cholesterol Treated?

The same things that can help to prevent high blood cholesterol can also be used to treat high blood cholesterol. This means that eating a proper diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly can all be used to treat high blood cholesterol. When these lifestyle modifications are not effective however, medications may be used. Medications used to treat high cholesterol include Statins, Bile-Acid-Binding Resins, Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitors and certain injectable medications.

high cholesterol statin drugs

Commonly Used Statins

      • Statins: In addition to the cholesterol that people ingest, the human body also makes it’s own cholesterol. Statins prevent the liver from making cholesterol. When the liver cannot make the cholesterol that the body needs to function, it takes cholesterol from the blood as a substitute. When the liver takes cholesterol from the blood, it lowers blood cholesterol levels. Commonly used statins include Lipitor, Lescol, Mevacor, Altoprev, Pravachol, Crestor, Zocor and Livalo.
      • Bile-Acid-Binding Resins: Like statin medications, bile-acid-binding resin medications also cause the liver to take cholesterol from the blood. When the liver takes cholesterol from the blood, it lowers blood cholesterol levels. Commonly used Bile-Acid-Binding Resins include Questran, Prevalite, Colestid and Welchol.
      • Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitors: Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitors prevent the intestines from absorbing dietary cholesterol that has been consumed in food. Less cholesterol from food means lower blood cholesterol levels. Zetia is a commonly used Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitor.
      • Injectable Medications: Injectable medications work similarly to statins, causing the liver to take cholesterol from the blood. When the liver takes cholesterol from the blood, it lowers blood cholesterol levels. Commonly used injectable medications include Praluent and Repatha.

How Are High Triglycerides Treated?

The same things that can prevent high blood triglycerides can also be used to treat high blood triglycerides. This means that eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and drinking alcohol in moderation are all lifestyle modifications that can be used to treat high blood triglycerides. When these lifestyle modifications are not effective however, medications may be used. Medications used to treat high blood triglycerides include Fibrates, Niacin and Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplements.

    • Fibrates: Fibrate medications prevent the liver’s production of the VLDL “vehicles” that carry triglycerides around in the blood. With less VLDL to carry triglycerides around in the blood, blood levels of triglyceride decrease. Commonly used fibrates include TriCor, Fenoglide and Lopid.
    • Niacin: Niacin prevents the liver from making the VLDL “vehicles” that carry triglycerides around in the blood. With less VLDL to carry triglycerides around in the blood, blood levels of triglycerides decrease. Niacin has however been linked to liver damage. So most Doctors recommend that it be used with caution.
      high cholesterol omega 3's

      Omega-3 Fatty Acids

    • Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements: Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements prevent the liver from making the VLDL “vehicles” that carry triglycerides around in the blood. With less VLDL to carry triglycerides around in the blood, blood levels of triglycerides decrease. Omega-3 Fatty Acids also help to clear excess triglycerides out of the blood.