My cholesterol is high! Should I panic?
Did your doctor tell you your cholesterol is high? Should you panic, change your diet or start taking pills? Heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of death in the United States, namely number one and three respectively, so what should you do before you become part of the deadly statistics? Before you do anything, you should understand what cholesterol is and how your body handles it.
We tend to think of cholesterol as a health hazard, but it plays a vital role in the human body’s metabolic processes. Without cholesterol, our cells would essentially fall apart. We wouldn’t be able to digest our food. More so, our body uses it to make hormones and absorb vitamins, and for other vital processes as well. Normally, our body produces enough of the chemical for all our needs—to make bile used in fat digestion and to support building the cell membranes. When the body fails to produce enough cholesterol, it is usually an indication of an underlying illness, sometimes a serious one. So having your cholesterol too low is just as much of health concern as having it too high.
We also consume cholesterol from the food we eat, namely from animal products like meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood. All these products contain cholesterol our body absorbs in addition to what it makes itself. That’s where things get tricky—in the bloodstream. When the food-derived cholesterol enters your blood, it binds to a molecule called lipoprotein, which contains fats and proteins. Lipoprotein can be of two types—a high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and low-density (LDL). When cholesterol binds to an HDL molecule, it gets removed from the bloodstream. If it binds to an LDL, it will stay there, causing damage to arterial walls through various chemical reactions, leading to atherosclerosis—the thickening of the arteries due to cholesterol build-up, and other cardiovascular disorders. That’s what earned the HDL and LDL cholesterol the nicknames of “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” respectively.
The LDL cholesterol has a complex lifecycle. When it remains in the blood, it can react with oxygen in the blood stream—it gets oxidized. This oxidized LDL can be very destructive to the artery cell walls. As it starts to cause harm, the body’s immune system dispatches specific types of blood cells called macrophages to fix the problem. Macrophages usually attack and digest foreign invaders such as dangerous pathogens or unwanted particles. In this case, macrophages begin to eat the oxidized LDL. Unfortunately, they can’t digest it, so the LDL keeps accumulating inside the macrophages until the cells burst, spitting all the LDL back into the bloodstream—which again causes arterial damage. Sensing a problem, the immune system sends more macrophages. The vicious circle repeats itself, eventually leading to chronic inflammation in the body and the cardiovascular disease we know as atherosclerosis.
The bad cholesterol can gradually thicken and harden the arteries, constricting them and reducing their elasticity. That leads to high blood pressure. Sometimes, cholesterol blobs form in the arteries, and then they can break off and block the blood flow. That can cause a stroke or a heart attack. The gradual constriction of the arteries by cholesterol can lead to the heart not being able to pump blood around to the organs—because the arteries have gotten too narrow. This is called congestive heart failure.
The one really bad thing about high cholesterol is that it causes almost no symptoms. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends that adults get their cholesterol checked every five years. Most people just go about their business until they are told, during a routine medical test, that their cholesterol levels had gone up. And sometimes, they keep on going even when they know their cholesterol is high, because they don’t feel sick—until it becomes too late.
When their cholesterol is severely elevated, some people may develop cholesterol deposits in their bodies—essentially fat deposits. They’re called xanthomas and often form at the tendons, but are also found on the skin and eyelids, or as nodules on the hands and feet. Usually xanthomas are associated with high cholesterol due to genetic issues, but not bad dietary habits. But if people live with high blood cholesterol for a long time, the LDL will cause enough damage, leading to cardiovascular problems, from atherosclerosis and angina to hypertension and coronary disease.
So if you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol it’s important to know whether your HDL and LDL are high or low. If the proportion of HDL is high, the arterial health is at lower risk because HDL helps remove cholesterol from the blood. A high proportion of LDL in the bloodstream is a warning sign because it can thicken, harden, and potentially block you arteries. It’s not just the cholesterol level, but the levels of HDL and LDL that are considered risk markers for developing atherosclerosis and other problems. So while the overall cholesterol level should be measured, it is the HDL and LDL counts that are the most telling. If your LDL levels are high, you may consider going on meds. But you also may consider changing your diet and exercising more—because physical activity helps keep your arteries healthy. And you also may consider an alternative medicine approach to lowering your LDL—by way of homeopathy, herbal remedies, or nutritional therapy.