Approximately half of all Australians have a blood cholesterol level above the recommended value, making high cholesterol a major health concern for the Australian population. Cholesterol is a type of fat that is made naturally in the body and performed many important functions. It is essential to have cholesterol circulating throughout the blood-stream, and the body works to regulate its amount to ensure there is enough for the critical role it plays. When we consume additional cholesterol via diet, however, consuming foods in excess that are high in cholesterol or do not lead a lifestyle that is conducive to the proper elimination of excess cholesterol, the higher levels of cholesterol can lead to major consequences and long-term negative health problems.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat, which is made naturally in the body. Specifically, it is a steroid type of fat, similar to the chemical structure of hormones. It has a ring structure, with four rings arranged in a specific molecular configuration, and it is a key component of cell membranes, helping to alter the membrane fluidity so that the cells are able to have substances enter and exit. Just like the body needs saturated and unsaturated fats, it also needs cholesterol, and it is very good at creating all three types, as they are needed.
Cholesterol is made in the liver and within several other cells throughout the body. While it may get a bad rap, it is not inherently bad, and your body makes it on a daily basis because it needs it to help perform important tasks and carry out specific bodily functions. Essentially, the liver produces the cholesterol and they it is carried out to where it is needed via lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins are like little couriers that carry the cholesterol to their destination. These lipoproteins occur as high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or low-density lipoproteins (LDL). You may be familiar with the terms HDL and LDL as hearing them associated with good fat and bad fat respectively. This is because HDL picks up excess cholesterol – which comes either from overproduction in the liver or from our diet – and carries it back to the liver to be broken down and eliminated or to be sent out again when the body needs more cholesterol.
In contrast, LDL carries fresh cholesterol out to the bloodstream. When there is a lot of cholesterol to be carried, either via liver production or food consumption, there is also a lot of LDL. Excess LDL will begin accumulating on the walls of blood vessels and arteries, narrowing the space for blood flow, and causing a build-up of cholesterol and LDL, which can eventually cause a blockage and initiate a heart attack. This is the major risk associated with high cholesterol levels, as discussed below.
What does cholesterol do?
Cholesterol plays several critical roles within the body and is an essential compound for survival. Specifically, it functions in building the structure of membranes, acting as a building block to allow cell membrane construction. It makes hormones like estrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones and encourages efficient metabolism, supporting such things as Vitamin D production. In addition, it produces bile acids, which are required in the liver to help digest fats.
It is in the liver that much of the activity of cholesterol occurs, both in terms of its production and in terms of its delegation to other roles within the body. As a result, a healthy, functioning liver is critical for proper cholesterol maintenance within the body. Boosting liver health via the consumption of bitter foods, drinking dandelion tea and ensuring regular detoxification procedures is very important.
How do you end up with high cholesterol?
Given that cholesterol is an essential compound within the body, it can be difficult to understand why there are so many health complications associated with having high cholesterol. Issues with cholesterol in the body occur when there is an excess of cholesterol consumed via diet. Because the body makes cholesterol in the liver, it is not necessary to consume cholesterol in high amounts via food. Our current mainstream diet, however, is rich in high-fat processed foods, excess sugar and nutritionally deficient dietary choices.
Essentially, we are consuming way more cholesterol than our body needs and this is being sent circulating throughout the bloodstream. While the body has mechanisms to reduce the overall cholesterol content within the bloodstream, this is only as effective as the amount of HDL we have, as well as how healthy the rest of our body is to be able to keep up with the demand for elimination.
What is occurring so often in individuals, who are seen with high cholesterol, is they are presenting with a trifecta of inadequacies leading to the high cholesterol diagnosis. It starts with having an unhealthy liver, which can’t properly metabolize or produce cholesterol. This may be because the liver has too much fat, (due to dietary choices), or does not undergo adequate detoxification.
The second component is that there is not enough HDL within the body. HDL, or good fat, can only come from consuming said fat via diet. It is found in things such as avocado, coconut, flaxseeds and nuts, and seeds. The third issue contributing to high cholesterol is that there is too much cholesterol consumed via diet. Things such as fatty foods, processed, packaged foods, refined sugary pastries and snacks, candy, dessert items and meat, are all contributors to these numbers and can increase the overall cholesterol level within the body. In the end, the increased cholesterol intake, reduced ability for the body to remove excess cholesterol, and reduced ability for the liver to break down excess cholesterol, all contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels within the body, ending as high cholesterol for many individuals.
What are the consequences of high cholesterol?
The reason high cholesterol gets so much attention is because it is a precursor to several other more serious heart health issues. Cholesterol is one of the compounds, which clogs arteries and blocks blood vessels. When this happens, blood flow is restricted, negatively impacting circulation throughout the body. This reduces oxygen delivery, compromising the optimal functioning of muscles, cells, and systems throughout the body. In addition, it can cause shortness of breath, limiting function in certain activities for the individual. One of the other issues with impeded arteries and blood vessels is that it increases the risk of heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when a blockage arises in the vessels that lead to the heart. The build-up of cholesterol on the walls narrows them down and can eventually cause a complete blockage. Depending on where this occurs a heart attack or stroke will ensue. Furthermore, high cholesterol levels create an added burden on the liver. The liver has many functions, including metabolizing drugs and alcohol, breaking down fat and detoxifying substances. When the liver is compromised and unhealthy, all of these other functions are compromised as well.
How can you reduce your cholesterol levels?
Establishing healthy cholesterol levels starts with diet. Removing fatty, processed foods from the diet, which are high in cholesterol is a critical first step. This reduces the influx of excess cholesterol into the bloodstream.
Next up, it is important to eat foods that are high in soluble fiber to help bind to the extra built up cholesterol and carry it out of the body. Foods such as oatmeal and whole grains are a great option for this. Consuming lots of water and eating a healthy plant-based diet is also important. Meat is high in cholesterol and increases the risk of buildup within the arteries, while fibrous, nutrient dense-plants further aid in ridding the body of excess cholesterol, as well as help in natural detoxification. Not to mention, vegetables like beetroot are very good for circulation, and butter veggies like endive are very good for the liver.
Finally, regular exercise is critical for reducing cholesterol levels. The exercise helps improve blood circulation, as well as encourages the movement of toxins throughout the body, helping move along substances, which are bound to cholesterol. In addition, exercise benefits the heart and improves heart health so that the heart is better able to withstand stresses such as that of cholesterol building up within the arteries.
While it may seem like high cholesterol is a common problem, it is also one that, with some exercise, diligence and dietary changes, can easily be reversed.
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