Got your cholesterol reading and want to figure out what it means for your heart health? A layman-language framework will help.
First, cholesterol isn’t evil in and of itself. Your body needs it, within certain limits, to build cells and synthesize certain hormones.
Second, the “total cholesterol” number on your report doesn’t tell the whole story. “To best understand risk, it’s important to look at the individual components that make up total cholesterol,” says Grace Adeniji-Ilesanmi, a nurse practitioner with Unum.
Those components are “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides (also bad-ish). Your total cholesterol number is your HDL and LDL numbers, plus 20% of your triglycerides number.
That means your total cholesterol could be flagged as high (making you nervous), but the ratio of good to bad is actually favorable (phew!). Or it could be the other way around.
Think of total cholesterol as a first glimpse, Harvard Medical School suggests. Doctors shouldn’t make treatment decisions based on this number alone.
HDL cholesterol gets a thumbs up because it helps clear out LDL cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are generally associated with better heart health. (Think: Higher numbers are good for the high component, though some research has shown that due to genetic factors very high readings could actually be linked to an increased risk of heart disease.)
“It transports bad cholesterol out of cells, tissue and walls of blood vessels, and deposits it in the liver,” Adeniji-Ilesanmi says. Your liver, in turn, can eliminate it from your body.
LDL cholesterol isn’t entirely bad, though, nor are triglycerides. In fact, the body naturally produces LDL cholesterol. But when there’s too much, it can build up on the walls of your blood vessels, making it harder for blood to flow, leading to a heart attack or stroke. (Think: Lower numbers are good for the low component.) Often, lifestyle choices cause a glut of LDL, though some people inherit genes that make them have too much, a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia.
Your lipid panel, as the entire cholesterol reading is known, will probably also include very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), a precursor to LDL. You want that low, too.
Keep in mind cholesterol levels tend to get higher as we age, and women tend to have higher HDL cholesterol than men (thanks to estrogen, until menopause anyway).
Optimal readings according to Cleveland Clinic are generally higher than 60 for HDL cholesterol, less than 100 for LDL cholesterol and less than 150 for triglycerides. Those figures can vary depending on individual health profiles. The LDL number is usually considered the most important for assessing risk and deciding on treatment.
Also, the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet — not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food, according to Harvard. For most people, the amount of cholesterol eaten has only a modest impact on the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood. That said, some people’s levels can rise and fall strongly in relation to the amount of cholesterol they consume. Unfortunately, “trial and error” is the only way to know who’s in that camp, Harvard says.
On the bright side, here are some natural ways to lower the bad stuff and bump up the good stuff:
Stop smoking. And don’t start.
Be more active. As little as one hour of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week helps.
Upgrade your diet. Eat fewer refined and simple carbohydrates. They push up triglyceride levels. Your body converts excess calories into triglycerides then stores them in fat cells. Your body uses triglycerides for energy, but too much and you’re in the bad zone.
Stay away from saturated fats and trans fats. Both contribute to high triglycerides. Replace them with monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the bad stuff. Try salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, avocados, canola oil, olive oil and nuts (raw and plain is best).
Eat more soluble fiber, such as rolled oats and whole grains. The fiber sucks up the bad stuff, which your body can then easily eliminate.
Use cayenne. You probably won’t be able to stomach much, but research suggests it could help.
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly creates and edits content related to wellness, including for Yoga Journal, where she was a senior editor and is now a contributing editor. Connect at www.mitramalek.com.