Each year most of us trudge into our primary care provider and have a once-over, known as an annual exam. It’s not fun but it’s necessary to tell us how our body, the only body that we will ever have, is doing as the years go by.
Your cholesterol levels are one of the key chemicals checked every year. Cholesterol is monitored via a blood sample. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver. It is found within every cell in your body and also in your blood. It is a vital element in the body, necessary for construction of cell walls, tissues, hormones and vitamin D, among other things.
So why are we all terrified about our cholesterol levels?
The human body makes all the cholesterol it needs on its own. We don’t need to add it into our bodies via our diets. Add too much cholesterol and you run the risk of heart disease and multiple other ailments.
Cholesterol is found in animal foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. It comes in two forms: LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to fatty build up in arteries. HDL, on the other hand, is a “good” cholesterol because it carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the LDL is broken down and passed from the body. More HDL and low LDL is a good place to be when it comes to cholesterol.
There’s another chemical that may be checked during your annual exam. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need immediately into triglycerides. Triglycerides are stored in your fat cells and will release needed energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, particularly from high-carbohydrate foods, you end up with a high triglyceride level.
A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol is linked with fatty build up within arteries walls. Cholesterol combines with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible — a condition known as atherosclerosis. If a blood clot forms and blocks one of these narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can result.
The American Heart Association recommends all adults 20 and older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. As you get older, however, triglyceride and cholesterol levels increase. Increased weight as you grow older also kicks up the cholesterol level. For older individuals, it’s important to have these levels checked every year.
So how do you keep your cholesterol under control and how to you boost your LDL levels? Some simple steps can produce surprising results:
- Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week. Regular exercise can lower triglycerides and boost “good” cholesterol. Try to incorporate more physical activity into your daily tasks — for example, climb the stairs at work or take a walk during breaks.
- Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and foods made with white flour or fructose, can increase triglycerides.
- Lose weight. To reduce triglycerides, focus on cutting calories. Extra calories are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Reducing your calories will reduce triglycerides.
- Choose healthier fats. Trade saturated fat found in meats for healthier fat found in plants, such as olive and canola oils. Instead of red meat, try fish high in omega-3 fatty acids — such as mackerel or salmon. Avoid trans fats or foods with hydrogenated oils or fats.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink. Alcohol is high in calories and sugar and has a particularly potent effect on triglycerides. If you have severe hypertriglyceridemia, avoid drinking any alcohol.