What is cholesterol?
When your blood cholesterol levels are high, plaque begins to build up in your arteries. This leaves you at a greater risk for heart diseases like heart attack and stroke. While you cannot get rid of plaque completely, you can decrease it and improve your condition.
There are two types of cholesterol in your body. Good cholesterol is also called HDL cholesterol. Healthy HDL cholesterol levels in your body protect you from suffering from a heart attack and stroke.
Bad cholesterol is also called LDL cholesterol. You want your bad cholesterol levels to be as low as possible for your health. Diets that contain a lot of saturated fat and trans fat usually lead to higher levels of bad cholesterol.
When you eat, your body stores fat in your blood as triglycerides. They store the extra energy from your food so you can use it later. Higher blood triglycerides usually mean you have less good cholesterol.
You can make lifestyle changes that improve your cholesterol levels, and these include:
What is plaque?
When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it begins to stick to the walls of your arteries, forming plaque. In response, your body sends white blood cells to fight off the cholesterol. This leads to foamy cells that produce more fat and cause inflammation. Eventually, a cap forms over these cells to cover the area.
This cap and the cluster of cholesterol blocks pose many health risks. They block blood flow, leading to high blood pressure. If your blood pressure is too high, it can break open the caps and can cause a heart attack.
Reversing plaque buildup
Doctors cannot remove plaque completely from your arteries, but treatments can reduce the size of a blockage. If you identify the condition early, it’s possible to prevent further damage by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In some cases, efforts can even reverse some of the damage to improve your heart health.
Know your numbers. You can start by knowing important health measurements that gauge your overall health:
- Body mass index (BMI)
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
- Cholesterol levels
If you have heart disease, review your numbers at least once per year and talk to your doctor about any concerns. Your healthy range may be different from someone else’s depending on how old you are and your overall health.
Use the right medications. Aspirin helps to thin your blood and may prevent clots. Taking aspirin regularly may reduce your risk of stroke or heart attack. Before adding aspirin to your daily regimen, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits. Depending on the plaque buildup in your arteries, you may be able to start first with making lifestyle changes.
Your doctor may also prescribe a statin to lower your cholesterol levels. Brand names of these medications include Lipitor, Crestor, and Zocor. When diet and exercise aren’t enough to lower your cholesterol levels, a statin can help. Studies show that people live longer when they take steps to improve their cholesterol levels.
Avoid unhealthy foods. Cholesterol levels are primarily impacted by fatty, processed, salty foods. You can prioritize healthy fats like olive oil, fish, avocados, and nuts in your diet. Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choose lean meat over red meat.
Stay active. Because your body stores extra fat for future calorie burn, you can get ahead by staying physically active. When you get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days per week, you help burn more fat. If your doctor suggests losing weight, you may need to exercise more than the recommended amount.
Stop smoking and drinking. You should stop smoking altogether and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Men should limit alcohol to two beverages a day, and women should limit alcohol to a single beverage per day. If you’re struggling to stop smoking, talk to your doctor about resources that can help you quit.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men. Yet, 80% of heart disease is preventable if you take healthy steps. When you stay ahead of bad cholesterol, you can prevent and reduce the amount of plaque in your arteries and live a healthy life.
American Heart Association: "Understanding your cholesterol levels."
Harvard Medical School: "Can we reduce vascular plaque buildup?"
Journal of Atheroscler Thrombosis: "Diagnosis and Management of Statin Intolerance."
Providence: "Ask a Providence expert: Can I reverse heart disease?"
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