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Navigating cholesterol: Insights for balanced health

High cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease – the leading cause of death in the United States.

According to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an alarming 86 million Americans grapple with unhealthy cholesterol levels exceeding 200 mg/dl. Over 25 million of these individuals' cholesterol levels surpass 240 mg/dl, a parameter labeled as high cholesterol and 7% of children aged 6 to 19 have high total cholesterol. It’s important to recognize that not knowing or understanding your cholesterol numbers is not an option you can afford. The reason is that even if it’s high, there usually are not any symptoms sounding the alarm to let you know it needs your attention.

While dietary habits account for about 25% of cholesterol levels, the issue is far more complex and is interwoven with factors such as genetics, lifestyle and living conditions. Therefore, it is not always as simple as removing bacon, eggs and red meat from your diet to lower your cholesterol. It’s also worth noting the impact of trans fats, which are known to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are commonly found in smaller amounts in processed foods because they were banned as an actual food ingredient in the U.S. in 2018. However, food manufacturers are still able to sneak smaller amounts into the processed food you buy.

Achieving healthy cholesterol levels is a delicate balancing act. Excessive cholesterol can jeopardize your health, but too little could impact other vital bodily functions. Cholesterol is important for maintaining robust cell membranes in the brain and elsewhere in the body. It also plays a critical role in the production of sex and stress hormones like estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, adrenaline, vitamin D and cortisol.

Physical activity plays a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, too. Regular exercise can boost HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days of the week can be beneficial. Starting with a brisk walk is great.

Your health care provider will likely discuss LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. A useful analogy is to envision your bloodstream as a highway, with LDL and HDL lipoproteins as cars. These cars transport cholesterol and fats to various destinations within the body. Excessive “LDL cars” on this highway create a congested highway and is viewed as unhealthy as blood works hard to get past the traffic jam of cars.

Often tagged as “bad cholesterol,” an elevated level of LDL can lead to inflammation. This can potentially cause arteries to narrow and harden, adversely affecting heart health. However, remember that LDL is vital for the healthy cells and hormone production I previously mentioned. Conversely, HDL is hailed as “good cholesterol,” as it aids in lowering LDL cholesterol levels when they soar too high.

Triglycerides are another type of fat usually measured alongside cholesterol, but they function differently. If your calorie intake exceeds your body’s usage, it converts these excess calories into triglycerides and stores them in fat cells as an energy reserve. Regular overconsumption of calories can escalate triglyceride levels, thus increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke.

It’s worth noting that other body systems also use cholesterol. For instance, the digestive system uses cholesterol to produce bile, which aids in digestion and nutrient absorption. Excessive cholesterol in bile, however, can crystallize and form hard stones in the gallbladder.

The brain relies on cholesterol for the creation and protection of nerve cells, facilitating effective communication with the rest of the body. Elevated cholesterol levels can be detrimental, causing damage that could potentially lead to a stroke.

Achieving a healthy balance is key when it comes to cholesterol. It’s not merely about excluding high-fat foods from your diet; it involves an intricate equilibrium of dietary habits, genetics, lifestyle choices, and regular medical checkups. Being aware of your cholesterol numbers can empower you to improve your health and reduce the risk of heart disease.

This journey will simultaneously lead to better brain function, enhanced hormone production, and improved nutrient digestion and absorption. This balance is not only the key to a longer life but also to a better quality of life. Understanding and managing cholesterol is a proactive step toward healthier living.

Fran Sutherlin, RD, MS is a local registered dietitian, digestive health coach, speaker, and owner of Sustainable Nutrition. She can be reached at 444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.