Cholesterol

Cholesterol isn't entirely the health villain it's made out to be, its name darkly linked to heart attack, stroke, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Our bodies need cholesterol, which is a type of lipid (another name for fat) to make cell membranes, key hormones like testosterone and estrogen, the bile acids needed to digest and absorb fats, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is so important to the body that the liver and intestines make it from scratch.

What is "bad" about cholesterol isn't the substance itself — in fact, we can't live without it — but how much of it is in the bloodstream.

The body packages cholesterol in two main particles: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called good cholesterol. Too much LDL in the bloodstream helps create the harmful cholesterol-filled plaques that grow inside arteries. Such plaques are responsible for angina (chest pain with exertion or stress), heart attacks, and most types of stroke.

What causes a person's LDL level to be high? Most of the time diet is the key culprit. Eating foods rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and easily digested carbohydrates boost LDL. Genes are sometimes at the root of high cholesterol, and some medications can boost LDL.

If you have high cholesterol, making changes in your diet can help bring it down into the healthy range. Exercise can help boost the level of protective HDL. Several types of medication, notably the family of drugs known as statins, can powerfully lower LDL. Depending on your cardiovascular health, your doctor may recommend taking a statin.

Cholesterol Articles

A heart-healthy diet doesn’t need to be low in fat

Over the past decade, nutrition experts have shifted away from recommending a low-fat diet to focusing more on an overall healthy dietary pattern. This eating style, which includes lots of plant-based foods, is naturally low in saturated fats. Found mainly in meat and dairy products, saturated fat can boost levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, a key contributor to heart disease. Cutting back on all types of fat does not necessarily translate into a diet that lowers cardiovascular risk. The plant-centric Mediterranean eating pattern, which is rich in healthy unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and olives, has the best evidence for lowering heart disease risk. More »

Beyond "bad" cholesterol: A closer look at your blood lipids

For assessing heart disease risk, a standard cholesterol test doesn’t always tell the whole story. Some people with "normal" LDL cholesterol levels might benefit from a test that measures apolipoprotein B (apoB). This test, which measures the number of LDL particles as well as other particles that can contribute to clogged arteries, may be a better indicator of heart disease risk than just an LDL cholesterol value. (Locked) More »

How does inflammation increase the risk for heart attacks?

We now understand why inflammation increases heart attack risk. As cholesterol invades the wall of the artery, the immune system treats it like it treats other invaders. Immune system cells infiltrate the artery wall, release inflammation-producing chemicals, and send signals for other cells to remove the cholesterol. Then a fibrous cap forms over the plaque. Inflammation inside the plaque can eventually eat away at that fibrous cap. If the cap ruptures, cholesterol and the inflammatory cells and chemicals suddenly spill into the artery, causing a blood clot to form and block blood flow. More »

What is a silent stroke?

Most strokes are caused by a clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain. Those that damage small areas of brain tissue that don’t control any vital functions are known as silent strokes because they don’t cause any noticeable symptoms. (Locked) More »

When walking leads to leg pain

Peripheral artery disease (PAD), which occurs when fatty deposits clog arteries outside the heart, is underrecognized and potentially dangerous. The hallmark symptom is leg pain that occurs with exercise, called intermittent claudication. PAD is more common among people who are older, who smoke, and who have diabetes. The recommended treatment involves short periods of walking interspersed with rest periods when pain occurs. Walking increases blood flow in the leg’s smaller arteries and helps create new channels to move blood around the blockages; it also helps discourage new blockages. (Locked) More »

Hot baths and saunas: Beneficial for your heart?

Taking baths or saunas on a regular basis may help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. Evidence for these benefits comes from studies in Japan (where hot tub use in ingrained in the culture) and Finland, where saunas are popular. Both habits seem to be safe for people with stable heart disease and even mild heart failure. But people with unstable chest pain (angina), poorly controlled high blood pressure, or other serious heart issues should avoid them. Because high temperatures can lower blood pressure, older people with low blood pressure should be extra careful in hot baths and saunas. More »

What do Twitter posts say about statins?

Many Twitter posts that mention statins provide links to published research about these cholesterol-lowering medications. Some tweets feature personal beliefs about statins that are inaccurate, including the notion that people can eat unlimited unhealthy foods while taking a statin. But only a small percentage of Twitter posts mentioned adverse side effects such as muscle aches and diabetes. (Locked) More »

Supplements for three common conditions

If someone is unable to tolerate medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or anxiety, supplements may be an option. Evidence shows that certain supplements may be effective for these conditions, if taken properly under the supervision of your doctor. But to ensure you are buying products that are both safe and effective, look for a quality seal on the label. More »