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Understanding the Symptoms of High Cholesterol

July 19, 2019

When we hear about cholesterol, it’s often treated negatively. In truth, cholesterol contributes to healthy cells and helps make vitamin D, along with some hormones. Cholesterol is also critical to brain health — the brain contains about 25 percent of the body’s total cholesterol supply. However, too much cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. Understanding what cholesterol is, where it comes from and how to keep it in check are all part of maintaining a healthy heart.

Cholesterol Basics

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and cells. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs, but we also get cholesterol from some of the food we eat. Meat, poultry, fish and full-fat dairy products all contain cholesterol. Additionally, some fried food and baked goods high in saturated and trans fats can cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. Palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil all can do the same thing.

Not all cholesterol is created equal, though. Nutritionists break cholesterol down into two major categories:

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is also known as “bad” cholesterol. This is the cholesterol that builds up in your arteries and causes them to harden. It’s found in the fried food and baked goods described above.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL) is also called “good” cholesterol. It’s believed to pick up excess LDL cholesterol and carry it back to the liver, where that substance is broken down. HDL is found in many of the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet, including olive oil, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and fatty fish.
When Cholesterol Causes Problems

Too much LDL cholesterol — and not enough HDL cholesterol — can put you at risk for heart disease. LDL cholesterol builds up in your arteries to form a substance called plaque. This slows the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle. You might feel a pain called angina as a result. Angina is a warning sign of a possible heart attack in the future. Additionally, a piece of plaque can break away to block blood flow completely, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

High LDL cholesterol poses risks to other parts of the body as well.

  • Intestinal tract, legs and feet. Plaque created by LDL cholesterol can slow or block blood flow to these areas, causing a condition called peripheral arterial disease.
  • Brain. High blood cholesterol has been linked to memory loss and mental decline. It might speed the formation of the protein deposits that damage the brains of those with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Gallbladder. Your gallbladder holds bile, a substance used in digestion, until it’s needed. Excess cholesterol in the bile can form crystals that turn into painful gallstones in your gallbladder.
Diagnosing and Treating High Cholesterol

There are no physical signs of high cholesterol, unless you’re already feeling symptoms of the problems it can cause. A blood test is the only way to know your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Your doctor might recommend medications called statins if your levels are too high. There are also lifestyle changes you can make that might help you lower your cholesterol without medication:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. This includes reducing saturated fats, eliminating trans fats and eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid — including salmon, herring, walnuts and flax seed.
  • Exercise more. Engaging in moderate physical activity can help raise HDL cholesterol. This can mean a 30-minute brisk, daily walk five times a week or something more vigorous three days a week for at least 20 minutes.
  • Quit smoking. Quitting smoking, if you’re a smoker, raises HDL cholesterol quickly. You can cut your risk of heart disease in half in just a year.
  • Lose weight. Even an extra few pounds contributes to high cholesterol. Cutting sweet drinks and boosting your activity level can make a big difference.