Most of us are familiar with the dangers of high cholesterol, mainly in contributing to heart disease. The waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in all parts of the body is necessary for you to function properly.
But too much of it in the blood, and it sticks to the walls of your arteries and create plaque, which blocks the blood flow and leads to heart disease.
Cholesterol has also recently been associated with several other diseases. A study recently published in the journal Neurology linked high cholesterol with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease; and researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that high cholesterol contributes to a loss of bone density as we age.
Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs for important functions like making hormones, vitamin D, and digesting food. But because cholesterol is also found in many foods that we eat, it's all too easy to take in much more cholesterol than needed, possibly leading to these health problems.
A simple blood test can reveal your cholesterol levels, and the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that healthy adults get their cholesterol levels checked every five years.
Fortunately, there are ways to decrease your bad cholesterol - and increase the good.
"The dietary and lifestyle changes that are recommended to help improve the level of HDL, which is considered ‘good’ cholesterol in the body, are also the same recommendations that will help to lower the level of LDL, considered the ‘bad’ cholesterol," says Carol Wolin-Riklin MA RD LD.
Lowering Bad Cholesterol
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are what make up your "bad" cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol, there are medications and treatment that your physician can recommend.
But there are also many therapeutic lifestyle changes that you can make to lower your bad cholesterol naturally. This is generally done through diet, physical activity and weight management.
The National Institute of Health calls a low-cholesterol diet the TLC Diet. It's an eating plan that consists of foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol; the guidelines are that less that seven percent of your calories should come from saturated fat, and less than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.
You can also increase the amount of soluble fiber in your diet to boost the LDL-lowering power. Foods that are good to include in a TLC diet are:
- fat-free or 1 percent dairy products
- lean meats, fish & skinless poultry
- whole grain foods
- fruits and vegetables
- oatmeal and oat bran
- nuts, dried peas and beans
- olive oil
- soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) that are low in saturated fat and contain little or no trans fat.
There are also certain foods to avoid. Liver and other organ meats, egg yolks, and full-fat dairy products are all high in cholesterol; and of course, all saturated fats and trans fats should be avoided.
Besides prescription medications, there are many natural and alternative products which lower bad cholesterol. These include flaxseed oil, garlic, grape seed extract, red clover, soy and green tea.
If you are overweight, losing weight can help lower LDL, and is especially important if you have other risk factors, such as low levels of good cholesterol and a large waist measurement (over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women).
In combination with weight loss, regular physical activity of 30 minutes or more per day is recommended for everyone, and especially important for lowering LDL levels.
Finally, smoking and excessive alcohol intake increase a person's risk for heart disease and stroke, and is associated with higher cholesterol levels.
Increasing Good Cholesterol
"HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) is considered the good cholesterol in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease by collecting excess cholesterol and carrying it away from the arteries," says Wolin-Riklin. "HDL takes the excess cholesterol to the liver which can break it down for disposal."
Some fats are good for you. "Limit saturated fats and trans fats," Wolin-Riklin advises. "Use monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as canola oil, peanut oil and olive oil."
These types of fats can actually lower LDL levels and increase HDL.
Orange juice also has a positive effect; a British study showed that drinking three cups of orange juice a day increased HDL cholesterol levels by 21 percent over three weeks. Other juices may also have a similar beneficial affect, particularly pomegranate, tomato and purple grape juice.
Lowering your glycemic load also boosts good cholesterol. They glycemic load is how much your blood sugar is raised by certain foods; the higher your glycemic load, the lower your HDL. By sticking with foods at the lower end of the glycemic scale, such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits, you can boost your HDL levels.
Soy products also appear to strengthen good cholesterol, especially when substituted for animal-based dairy products. Not only is soy low in saturated fats, they are also high in fiber.
Drinking alcohol in moderation and getting plenty of aerobic exercise can help raise your HDL.
Niacin, a B vitamin that turns your carbohydrates into energy, increases your HDL, or good cholesterol. A new drug is also currently being studied, which could boost good cholesterol.
The experimental heart drug dalcetrapib was shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels by 31 percent in research done at Mount Sinai Hospital. Of course, you should speak to your doctor before taking any medications, including over-the-counter supplements.