What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is produced by animals; human bodies produce it and it’s found in animal products like meat and cheese. While doctors and media talks about cholesterol like it’s horrible, it is essential for healthy body function. The body uses cholesterol to make cell membranes, hormones, bile acids, and vitamin D.
Why should I care about blood cholesterol levels?
If you have too much of the wrong kind of cholesterol, it can build up in your blood vessels and arteries, leading to inflammation and eventually disease or heart attacks.
There are two main types of cholesterol:
- HDL: also known as high-density lipoprotein or “good cholesterol”: HDL absorbs cholesterol and takes it to the liver to be flushed from the body
- LDL: also known as low-density lipoprotein or “bad cholesterol”: high levels of LDL can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries, which causes heart disease and strokes
- Within LDL, there are two sub-categories:
- Big, fluffy, buoyant LDL particles: these are less damaging
- Small, dense LDL particles: these can slip into arterial lining, causing more clogging. Plus they are more easily oxidized, contributing to plaques
- A note about blood testing: most doctors are not yet testing to see which types of LDL you have, but the more dangerous small LDL particles are usually associated with high triglycerides (over 120 mg/dL) and low HDL (<40 mg/dL in men and <50 in women)
- Within LDL, there are two sub-categories:
Lifestyle changes for better cholesterol numbers
New research is showing that doctor’s old advice to avoid dietary cholesterol is incorrect. Dietary cholesterol has little, if any, affect on blood serum cholesterol levels.
Healthy dietary changes
What you DO need to avoid at all costs are trans fats. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils; they are semi-solid at room temperature, found in many packaged and fast foods, and build up in the body until they cause serious disease. Saturated fats (any solid fat, including coconut oil) are not nearly as unhealthy as trans fats. Read your labels carefully! Packaged food producers adjust their serving sizes until there is less than .5 g of trans fat in their product, so they don’t have to list it on the label. But trans fats are dangerous in all serving sizes, and most of us don’t just eat one serving of junk food anyway. Read the ingredients carefully, and skip anything that has “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list.
Avoid white, carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, pasta, baked goods, dried cereals, chips, pretzels, and crackers. Even if a food does not have added sugar, if it has white flour, avoid it. White simple carbs break down into glucose in your body very quickly, so they spike your blood sugar just like table sugar does. Carbohydrates are more to blame for your high cholesterol than fats are. Carbs are not always bad- many types have health benefits– but get yours from vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole unprocessed grains.
Here are some foods that you absolutely should eat while trying to improve cholesterol numbers:
- Fatty cold water fish (like salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, mackerel, lake trout, and tuna [but don’t eat tuna too often because of mercury levels])
- Olive oil
- Fruits and vegetables
- Tea (unsweet!)
Many of these foods contain healthy fats that improve artery function. However, don’t go too crazy with high fats foods like olive oil, avocado, and nuts- eating too much, even if it’s healthy foods, can lead to weight gain.
Exercise can help you lose weight, which tends to improve cholesterol numbers. However, even if you don’t lose weight on the scale, a regular exercise program will reduce your percentage of body weight from fat and increase the percentage of weight from muscle. Studies have shown that exercise can both reduce high LDL levels and raise low HDL levels.
So what type of exercise should you do? Do something you enjoy, for at least 30 minutes per day, most days of the week. Many of us have a hard time getting in our exercise, so try some of the following activities and tips:
- Find a walking buddy at work and spend half of your lunch break walking together
- Accountability helps. You’re more likely to stick to it if you have someone to encourage you on the days when you feel lazy
- The reduced time you have to eat will also encourage you to bring your own lunch, which will lead to healthier meals and saving some cash!
- You may find that the fresh air, sunlight, and exercise make you happier and more productive at work, especially if you have a desk job
- Try a new class: dance, yoga, boxing, boot camp, spinning, water fitness… anything that appeals to you
- Link exercise with something you want to do- try listening to a podcast while you walk, only watching TV while you’re on a stationary bike, or listening to new music during your workout
- Add variety: If you get bored easily, switch up the type of exercise you do or go to a new location. Try hiking a new trail over the weekend, alternating cardio, strength, and flexibility days, or start building a collection of workout DVDs so that you can choose depending on your mood
- Start small! It’s okay if you can’t run, do intense workout classes, or bench press your body weight. Do what you can. Over time, you’ll develop endurance and get motivation to start beating your own goals
- If you don’t have time to do a whole 30 minute workout at once, try breaking it up. Three 10-minute sessions count just as much as one 30-minute one
- Set a timer to remind yourself to get up and move around once every hour. If you don’t have much space to walk, stationary lunges, air squats, push-ups, planks, jumping jacks, and many other exercises can all be done in a small space
We know you already know this one, but it is particularly important while trying to cholesterol. Smoking lowers HDL and increases cardiovascular risk.
Combined with a good diet and regular exercise, all natural supplements to lower cholesterol can be extremely effective.
- Omega-3 Fish Oil: Studies have shown that high omega-3 intakes are associated with fewer adverse cardiac events, sudden death, and all-cause mortality. While omega-3 supplements are not proven to lower cholesterol, they do lower triglycerides, which tend to be elevated in people with high cholesterol
- Red Yeast Rice: Red yeast rice contains monacolins, including monacolin K, which is the active ingredient in lovastatin. Red yeast rice can effectively lower cholesterol without the same side effects as statins
- Pantethine: The active form of vitamin B5 (or pantothenic acid) helps with the transport, synthesis, and oxidation of fatty acids to and from cells and into mitochondria. It can help lower triglycerides, cholesterol, and simultaneously increase HDL levels
- Niacin: Another B vitamin, niacin is one of the most widely used vitamins for lowering cholesterol. It can help shrink artery plaque and reduce oxidative stress
- Plant sterols: Since plant sterols are molecularly similar to cholesterol, they can decrease cholesterol absorption in the lower GI tract and lower serum cholesterol levels
- CoQ10: CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant that can help protect LDL from getting oxidized, energize mitochondria in the heart, and lower blood pressure. It is a good idea to take CoQ10 if you are on statins or taking red yeast rice, as both can deplete your body’s natural levels of CoQ10
Just a reminder: These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA. The author and Peach Vitamins staff are not licensed medical professionals, and do not prescribe, treat, or cure any disease. The information provided here is based on research and anecdotal reports, and does not replace the advice of your medical professional. Consult with your healthcare provider before starting any dietary or supplement programs, and be sure to inform them of all the medications and supplements you take. Do not discontinue any prescription medications without instruction by your doctor.