High cholesterol explained

What Is Meant by High Cholesterol and Why Is It Important?

Maintaining a healthy heart and good circulation is important especially as we get older. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cardiovascular problems such as narrowed arteries and prescribed statins will have heard of the term cholesterol and know that it is important to keep it below a certain level. 

Here we take a closer look at high cholesterol, why it’s considered to be dangerous and how a functional medicine approach can help treat and also prevent this particular health issue.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol, in itself, is not bad. It’s a waxy fat or lipid that attaches to a protein. It is created naturally in the liver but can also be ingested when we eat fatty foods from animals. 

The American Heart Association recommends that anyone over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol levels checked every four or five years. According to the CDC, around 38% of adults in the US have high cholesterol above 200mg.

Why Cholesterol is Important

Cholesterol is utilized in the membranes that protect the inner structures of all cells throughout the body. It is used by the liver to make bile, which helps break down fats, and in other parts of the body, it plays a role in producing hormones such as vitamin D. 

There are two types of cholesterol:

  • LDL or low-density lipoprotein is often termed bad cholesterol as it can build up on the walls of the arteries and cause them to narrow. 
  • HDL or high-density lipoprotein is commonly known as good cholesterol and is involved in transporting LDL back to the liver so it can be processed and excreted from the body as a waste product.

Dangers of High Cholesterol

If we have too much ‘bad’ cholesterol, it gets into the bloodstream and begins to build up as plaque deposits in the arteries, narrowing them and increasing the risk of heart disease, including a stroke or heart attack. 

The guidelines on measuring LDL and HDL in the USA changed in 2014. A level of 130 mg of LDL is considered high. However, today physicians also take into account a range of other factors including whether heart disease has developed and the presence of conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

High Cholesterol Symptoms

High cholesterol does not have any symptoms that can be noticed by the individual and the only way to determine cholesterol levels is from a blood test. In clinical settings, this is a test that takes just a few seconds. There are CDC approved home kits that can be used to measure LDL and HDL and which are fairly accurate.

Unhealthy food can cause high cholesterol

High Cholesterol Causes and Risk Factors

Levels of cholesterol vary because of several different factors:

  • People who maintain an unhealthy diet are more likely to be at risk of high levels of cholesterol.
  • Being obese or even overweight and not undertaking enough exercise also play important roles and are also risk factors for developing heart disease. 
  • Premenopausal women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than men until after menopause when LDL rises. 
  • How much cholesterol the liver makes and how efficiently LDL is processed and excreted may also have a genetic component.

Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia)

In the past, when high cholesterol levels were identified in an individual, the first step would be to prescribe long-term medication such as a statin. 

In more recent years, however, a functional medicine approach has proved beneficial in not just prevention but the treatment of high levels of LDL.  

The conventional medical approach looks at the symptoms of a condition and produces a treatment to handle this. The functional medical approach looks to find the root cause of the disease or illness. 

In the case of high cholesterol, there may well be several factors that are an underlying cause of the condition, including problems with the thyroid, metabolic dysfunction and even infections. The most common cause of high LDL in adults is often a mix of poor diet and lack of physical activity. 

As far as food choices are concerned, the functional medicine approach takes a close look at the patient’s current diet and what needs to change. Reducing the intake of saturated and trans fats  and switching to more heart-healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and oily fish should reduce high levels. 

In addition, the functional medicine approach will look at the person’s weight and how much exercise they undertake each week. We should all be getting around 150 minutes of moderate to intensive aerobic activity each week, something which should not only reduce cholesterol levels but also lower blood pressure. 

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