When it comes to heart health, just about everyone understands that high cholesterol is something to avoid. It’s also common to find general notions of eating right and staying active in order to keep that from happening.

Those are good starting points, but the truth is that cholesterol and its impact on your heart are worth examining in more detail. It’s not about just staying clear of a high number, but rather understanding exactly why a high level of cholesterol can cause health issues — and what you can do to lower it if necessary.

Let’s start with the most important question and go from there into everything you need to know about how to lower cholesterol.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a molecule found in the cells of all animals, not just humans, and is an important component of cellular membranes. But there’s more to it than just that: There are actually both “good” and “bad” forms of cholesterol.

The human body produces some cholesterol naturally, but we can also accumulate more of it from the food we eat. That can mean a surplus of low-density lipoproteins, or LDL. These increase the “bad” cholesterol of the type we’re trying to keep at a minimum. At low levels, LDL isn’t an issue, because high-density lipoproteins (HDL) are on hand to take cholesterol to the liver to be removed from the body. Hence, HDL really is a “good” cholesterol.

Why you want to lower your cholesterol

Problems occur when there is too much LDL to handle. When there’s an excess of LDL, it joins with other chemicals to form plaque, which can then build up in deposits on the walls of arteries. This is especially bad when it takes place in the arteries of the heart, where it can cause the slowing or prevention of blood flow to the heart, resulting in conditions from angina to heart attacks.

When doctors talk about a high cholesterol score, they’re saying that your LDL level is too high, putting your heart health at risk.

How to measure cholesterol

How do physicians know when your cholesterol is too high? Cholesterol is measured using a lipid panel, a relatively simple blood test that measures HDL, total cholesterol, and a few other related levels. It also provides an estimate of LDL, as the Johns Hopkins Medicine team explains.

Measuring cholesterol is an important part of our Heart Health program for Forward members, giving you an important indicator for understanding if your cholesterol is high enough that it presents a health risk. Fortunately, even if that turns out to be the case, physicians agree on some solid, straightforward actions anyone can take to lower cholesterol.

How to lower cholesterol

Eat more of certain foods — and less with saturated fats

Changes to your diet can make a big difference in lowering cholesterol, and they don’t need to be complicated. According to the National Institute of Health, there are some simple guidelines to follow to get your cholesterol score down:

  • Reduce your consumption of saturated fats – This is arguably the most common sense action out there, as most people understand that red meat and non-lowfat milk and dairy products are high in saturated fats, which increase your cholesterol level. Eat them only in moderation or eliminate them where possible.
  • Eat more high-fiber foods – Increasing your intake of soluble fiber helps reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream. Great sources of soluble fiber include oats, barley and other whole grains, as well as fiber supplements.
  • Eat more foods with omega-3 fatty acids – Though these may sound bad for you, they’re just the opposite: Omega-3 fatty acids raise your HDL, or good cholesterol, and have other positive effects on heart health. You’ll find them in things like fish (particularly salmon, herring and mackerel) and certain types of nuts and seeds.

Increase your level of physical activity

Since all of us have varying levels of physical and cardiovascular fitness, it’s perhaps too forceful to say “exercise more.” But one thing that doctors agree on is that staying active is important in terms of your cholesterol level, as being too sedentary can increase LDL while lowering HDL.

One good guideline to get you started, regardless of your fitness level, is to increase your regular physical activity so that you move consistently throughout the week — 2.5 hours per week is a good target. And don’t worry about being constrained to traditional definitions of exercise, as anything that keeps you moving and elevates your heart rate applies.

Avoid tobacco products and limit alcohol consumption

It’s common knowledge that smoking is bad for the lungs, but you might not know that it can damage your arteries as well. Combining that with plaque buildup due to high cholesterol can lead to serious heart health problems. That’s why the CDC says flat out that if you currently smoke, you should quit, and non-smokers should never start.

Alcohol isn’t quite as detrimental, but can raise overall cholesterol and levels of triglycerides (a specific kind of fat) in the blood if consumed in large quantities. The CDC recommends consuming no more than one or two alcoholic beverages per day in order to maintain your heart health.

Lose weight

There’s a direct link between obesity and elevated levels of LDL, so maintaining a healthy body weight is important. Everyone has their own range of healthy weights based on age, height and other factors, so talking to your doctor to understand yours can be extremely helpful. 

Happily, many of the same diet and physical activity guidelines we’ve discussed to lower cholesterol are the same ones that help lose weight if needed. Forward members can receive additional diet and exercise optimization guidance as part of our overall Heart Health program.

Medicines that lower cholesterol

When they feel it’s necessary, doctors have multiple options for treatment they can prescribe for high cholesterol. Medicines to lower cholesterol fall into several categories, including statins, which lower the liver’s production of cholesterol while increasing its ability to remove LDL from the blood.

These treatments can also be part of your ongoing discussion with your doctor about lowering cholesterol. Your physician will consider a number of factors in deciding if you could benefit from these medicines, including overall LDL levels, prior history of arterial heart disease, age, and additional health conditions that could increase a risk of heart disease, like diabetes.

How long does it take to lower cholesterol?

Everyone’s path to lower cholesterol may end up slightly different, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the amount of time it takes to see a decrease in LDL and total cholesterol can vary from person to person. Diet and exercise can take three to six months to achieve lasting results, though they have additional benefits that can kick in much sooner.

Some people may see lower cholesterol levels in just a matter of weeks. The common thread here is that it won’t happen overnight, but it’s also a journey that won’t take years to complete, and like all factors in heart health under your control, it’s one well worth starting at any time.

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