High Cholesterol: Symptoms, Causes, and Diet as Treatment

Cholesterol plays a vital role in the body's ability to function. High cholesterol, when caused by underlying health conditions, can cause serious illness if left untreated. But if treated, complications can be prevented. Here’s what you should know.

8 minute read

Last Updated July 17, 2020

High Cholesterol: Symptoms, Causes, and Diet as Treatment

Cholesterol is a lipid produced by the liver that plays a role in the formation of vitamin D, cell membranes, and some hormones. Cholesterol travels through the blood with the help of lipoproteins because it cannot dissolve in water. 

The two types of lipoprotein are LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). When the levels of LDL are very high in your blood, you are said to have high cholesterol. If left untreated, your risk of serious health complications increases. 

The two forms of cholesterol are very different, with one being good and one being bad for you. LDL cholesterol is responsible for creating the plaques that cause your arteries to become clogged. HDL cholesterol works to support liver function, so as to effectively remove LDL from your body. 

Over one-third of the American population has elevated LDL cholesterol levels, which makes regular testing even more important. 

High Cholesterol Symptoms

In general, high cholesterol is a silent problem, and there are no symptoms. Most of the time, people do not even realize they have high cholesterol levels until they are diagnosed with a health complication such as a heart attack or stroke. 

Because there are no signs of high cholesterol to look out for, prevention and effective treatment rely on you getting regular screenings to detect dangerous levels before a serious problem occurs.

Causes of High Cholesterol

The most common cause of high cholesterol is a poor diet full of saturated fats, fried foods, and processed snacks. Additional causes for high cholesterol can include:

♦ Smoking
♦ Lack of physical activity
♦ Genetics can play a significant role in how you process cholesterol
♦ Familial hypercholesterolemia, which is a genetic disorder that prevents your body from removing LDL

There are also certain diseases and health conditions associated with high cholesterol:

♦ Atherosclerosis: Too much cholesterol hardens the arteries, impairing circulation, and blood flow. This increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Heart disease: High cholesterol is a common precursor to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, as the arteries become clogged with cholesterol plaques.

♦ Peripheral vascular disease: This condition can develop as a result of arterial clogs, which are most commonly caused by high cholesterol and plaque formation.

♦ Kidney disease: Cholesterol plaque buildup can damage your kidneys, contributing to kidney failure. 

Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid means fewer thyroid hormones are available to break down LDL as needed. This causes a buildup of cholesterol in the blood. 

Gallstones: Cholesterol gallstones are common and form as a result of undissolved cholesterol in the body. These stones are painful and interfere with gallbladder and kidney function. Surgery is required to have them removed. 

Diabetes: Diabetes has been found to lower good (HDL) cholesterol and raise triglyceride levels, which is why diabetes and heart disease are commonly linked. Insulin resistance is also a precursor to type 2 diabetes and blood vessel disease.

Diagnosing High Cholesterol 

It is important to get your cholesterol levels routinely checked. By the age of 20, you should be getting it checked once every 4 to 6 years. You should get tested more frequently if you have a history of high cholesterol. 

Lipid panels are used to test your total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels. You cannot eat or drink anything for 12 hours before these tests. High total cholesterol or high LDL count will indicate a diagnosis of high cholesterol. A high LDL level is especially dangerous if you also have low HDL levels. 

Treatment for High Cholesterol

Depending on how high your cholesterol is, your doctor may prescribe medications to help along with lifestyle modifications. Typically statins are the type of medication prescribed for high cholesterol, and they work by blocking your liver from producing the lipids. 

You may also be prescribed medications that work to sequester bile acid or inhibit cholesterol absorption. The goal of medications is to prevent excess LDL and total cholesterol levels from getting too high in the blood. 

High Cholesterol Diet

You don’t need to worry about eating enough good cholesterol because your body makes enough for you. The best way to prevent unhealthy cholesterol levels is to watch what you eat by checking the labels. 

As a general rule, no more than ten percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats or sugars. You can actively lower cholesterol and prevent complications by changing your diet. 

♦ Eat a variety of foods that are high in fiber (vegetables, legumes, and whole grains).
♦ Limit high cholesterol foods and those high in saturated fats.
♦ Avoid junk food, processed food, and fast food.
♦ Cut back on baked treats such as cakes, cookies, and muffins.
♦ Choose baked, broiled, steamed, and grilled foods over fried versions.
♦ Opt for lean proteins such as poultry and fish instead of red meats.
♦ Avoid high-fat dairy products.

Eating fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids may also help lower your LDL levels. For example, salmon, mackerel, and herring are rich sources of omega-3s. Walnuts, almonds, ground flax seeds, and avocados also contain omega-3s.

Natural Treatment for High Cholesterol

In addition to dietary changes, there are supplements you can try to lower your cholesterol levels naturally. 

♦ Berberine bark extract has been found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels, which increases HDL (good) cholesterol. When combined with healthy lifestyle choices, berberine has been proven to more effectively reduce high cholesterol levels. 

Niacin reduces the cholesterol that leads to the development of atherosclerosis. It also protects the arteries and surrounding tissues from inflammation and oxidative damage, which reduces the risk of heart disease. 

Chromium benefits the heart by reducing the risk of high cholesterol and arterial clogs. Studies have found that lower chromium levels increase the risk of heart problems. When chromium is supplemented in the diet, this risk is reduced.

♦ Red yeast rice contains the same active ingredients as those found in cholesterol-lowering medications, making it a natural way to reduce the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.  

You can also try these heart-healthy herbs.

♦ Garlic has been shown to improve cholesterol levels. The beneficial compounds in garlic help to reduce inflammation and reduce the formation of plaques in the arteries.

♦ Hawthorn is a berry, and the extracts can be found in supplemental form. Hawthorn berry extract is known to lower LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides in the blood. 

♦ Plant sterols are groups of plant-based substances found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. These compounds, when taken daily, have been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

High cholesterol does not have to be permanent, and there are several options available to both treat and prevent this condition. Even if you are genetically predisposed to developing high cholesterol, you can significantly reduce your risks with dietary and lifestyle modifications. 

If left untreated, high cholesterol can lead to serious complications like heart attack and stroke. It is important to get regular screenings and to maintain a healthy life to prevent these complications from arising. 

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