Cholesterol gets a bad rap because it can do some significant damage. But in moderation, it’s a good thing. In fact, you need a certain amount of cholesterol to make vitamin D, produce hormones, help you digest food, and build healthy new cells throughout your body. But too much cholesterol becomes a menace that can wreak havoc on your vascular system and lead to major health problems and even death.
Anthony G. Avitabile Jr., DO and his team at RiverCity Family Medicine, PLLC in Chattanooga, Tennessee, often observe the adverse effects of high cholesterol in many patients. They offer the following primer to ensure you are not among them.
Cholesterol is a sticky, waxy substance. Your body produces it naturally, meaning you don’t need to get it from your diet. But you do get it from your diet every time you eat animal products like meat, cheese, butter, and eggs. If you eat too much of these, you end up with more cholesterol than your body can process, and it ends up swimming around in your bloodstream looking for a place to land.
Cholesterol mixes with other elements in your blood and forms plaque in your arteries, which sticks to the walls and makes the passage very narrow. This is called atherosclerosis, and it can lead to coronary heart disease.
A closer look at cholesterol
As previously mentioned, cholesterol attaches itself to other components in your blood, fat, and protein to be exact. This process is essential in understanding exactly how your body uses cholesterol.
The fat and protein in your blood are called lipoproteins, and cholesterol hitches a ride on them to move through your bloodstream. But not all lipoproteins are the same.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL)
When you have a good supply of HDL, cholesterol attaches to it and transports through your system all the way back to your liver where it gets removed. HDL is considered “good cholesterol” because it does its job, then exits.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL)
If your lipoproteins are mostly of the low-density variety, then something very different happens. When it mixes with cholesterol, it becomes sluggish and thick and begins to stick to your artery walls rather than zipping through your vascular system with ease.
Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL)
Like LDL, VLDL is considered “bad cholesterol” because it clogs your arteries. Although technically, LDL carries cholesterol and VLDL carries triglycerides.
What causes high cholesterol?
In addition to eating too many animal products, you may be at risk for high cholesterol if you:
- Have diabetes (high blood sugar plays a role)
- Are elderly (your liver slows down)
- Smoke (damages blood vessel and makes them easy to clog)
- Are overweight (BMI 30 or more)
- Are sedentary (exercise increases HDLs and breaks up LDLs)
If you have high cholesterol and let it go untreated, it can easily lead to chest pain, as your arteries close in and restrict your blood flow.
Heart attacks occur when the plaque breaks off and blocks blood flow to your heart, and strokes happen when the blood to your brain is blocked. Both are serious events that can be debilitating or fatal.
How to prevent high cholesterol and its complications
The best way to approach the issue of cholesterol is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. You can take care of this by simply eating a healthy diet that minimizes meat and dairy and focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise is also an important part of preventing dangerous levels of cholesterol.
But don’t assume that because you take these precautions your cholesterol levels are fine. Cholesterol builds up in your system with no symptoms to warn you of the danger. The only way to know for sure is to have your cholesterol checked.
As part of your annual physical at RiverCity Family Medicine, a blood test is conducted that reveals the exact levels of HDL, LDL, and VLDL in your system. That information informs her treatment plan, which may include medications if diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes don’t make enough of an improvement.
If you haven’t had your cholesterol checked within the past year (or ever), now’s the time to make an appointment at RiverCity Family Medicine in Chattanooga to make sure high cholesterol doesn’t sneak up and surprise you with a problematic heart condition. Call today or book a consultation online.