It’s been drilled into us for years that “high” cholesterol levels are bad. And, even if you haven’t been directly affected, you probably know someone who has struggled with their cholesterol.
But what is cholesterol? What makes it good or bad, and why does it matter? These are all essential questions.
Let’s break it down, because knowledge is power. And in the case of cholesterol, knowledge really could save your life.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your body uses to build cells. We all have it. It helps your brain, skin, and organs to grow and function optimally. It can form by two different methods:
- Your liver makes it.
- Your body gets it from the foods you eat, specifically animal products, like meat, poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, and milk.
And at its most basic level, cholesterol is harmless and necessary for our body to thrive.1
The problem is that many of these animal products are also high in saturated fats. This can cause your liver to go into overdrive and produce even more cholesterol – more than you actually need. For some people, this can be enough to kick them into the “bad cholesterol” zone.2
Cholesterol: Good Vs Evil
There are two very distinct types of cholesterol …
- The bad kind: LDL (low-density lipoprotein)
- The good kind: HDL (high-density lipoprotein)3
LDL cholesterol is considered bad because it produces something called plaque (a thick, hard deposit) which can clog your arteries. When arteries become clogged, they narrow – and less blood is able to get to the heart. In the worst case, they completely block blood from reaching your heart, or they cause a blood clot. Either way, both can cause a heart attack.
HDL cholesterol is considered good because it doesn’t clog your arteries. In fact, it cleans up the mess that LDL cholesterol makes by carrying LDL back to your liver to be processed and evicted.
There is also a third factor that needs to be addressed – triglycerides.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in your body. Their job is to store energy from your diet. But high triglyceride levels when combined with bad LDL cholesterol is linked to fatty buildups in the walls of the arteries. This further increases your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
What is Considered a “Normal” Cholesterol Level?
It’s important to understand what is considered “normal” for cholesterol levels, as you will no doubt have your cholesterol tested many times. In fact, you should be having your cholesterol tested as part of your yearly physical exam. Don’t be fooled if you’re a “skinny” body type, either. The sneaky thing about cholesterol is that you can be a slim person and still have high cholesterol.4
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) per tenth-liter (dL) of blood. To determine your healthy total cholesterol levels, your HDL and LDL are added together.
This reading should be below 200 mg/dL. You can break that down further and say that your LDL (bad) cholesterol should always be less than 160 mg/dl, 130 mg/dL, or 100 mg/dL – depending on your risk factors.
These risk factors could include a family history of heart disease, menopause, and others. Meanwhile, your HDL (good) cholesterol should sit around 35 mg/dL, but preferably higher.5
The higher your HDL level, the more you are protected against LDL cholesterol – and the problems it can cause.
How Can I Keep My Cholesterol Healthy?
Certain risk factors, like menopause or a family history of high cholesterol, are something you have no control over. So, your doctor will usually prescribe medications to assist you. The first step when it comes to cholesterol management is seeing — and listening to — your doctor.
But outside of that, you have control over your cholesterol levels. You absolutely should add foods that help increase your good HDL cholesterol, and limit foods that create more bad LDL cholesterol.6
These foods can have a big impact on bad LDL cholesterol levels:
1. Saturated fats, like red meat, whole-fat dairy, eggs, palm oil, processed coconut oil, and cocoa butter should typically not be the stars of your diet. However, they don’t need to be cut out completely. Saturated fats have been shown to lower triglycerides and slightly raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Confusing? Yes. But just think in “moderation”, as you should with any less-than-healthy food.
2. Trans fats have absolutely no nutritional value, and the FDA has now officially banned them – so they’ll be much easier to avoid. Trans fats make food taste good and give food a longer shelf life. This is why they became so popular to manufacturers for making cookies, cakes, popcorn, and even for cooking burgers and french fries. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol while reducing levels of HDL cholesterol.
These foods can actually make a wonderful impact on your cholesterol. Some are packed with soluble fiber, which bind to LDL cholesterol and help to remove it. Others are full of mono- or polyunsaturated fats, which lower LDL. Certain plant sterols and stanols can also help block the absorption of cholesterol.
These foods include:
- Red Wine
- Fruits rich in pectins, like apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus (in-season)
- Nuts (avoid peanuts and cashews, which are legumes)
- Vegetable oils (olive, avocado, and walnut oil in place of butter)
- Fatty fish
- Fiber supplements
Exercise affects the fats circulating in your bloodstream. Carrying around excess weight can boost bad cholesterol, and inactivity limits good cholesterol. So, get moving to get that cholesterol moving!
6 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Heart Health
So how can you help to raise your HDL levels naturally? Here are some easy, and more unusual, ways.
1. Eat More Good Fat / Less Lectin-Rich Grains
Avoid: Whole grain/ low-fat diets don’t work, just look at the coach from the Biggest Loser or the President of the American Heart Association (AHA) – both had heart attacks and both follow whole grain/ low-fat diets.
Get More: Eat more fats like avocado and olive oil, and cut out “healthy” lectin-loaded grains that inflame the system – like wheat, quinoa, and oats
2. Be Kind
Doing good for others – be it writing your partner a sweet note or helping a neighbor with a project – boosts your oxytocin levels (the happy hormone) and reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). When cortisol is increased, our blood pressure and inflammation levels rise.
3. Focus On Good Levels, Not Bad
Instead of worrying about bad LDL cholesterol, focus on raising your HDLs through low weight/high rep weight training. And, by drinking a glass of RED wine or champagne once a day (but if you don’t drink, don’t start).
You can also cut out seeded veggies and fruits from your diet, which are full of lectins. They also raise your triglycerides and lower your HDL levels due to the high-sugar content, as studies by the American Heart Association (AHA) have shown.
4. Floss More!
Flossing reduces heart plaque. You see, there are bacteria in your mouth that gets into your bloodstream and it’s one of the main causes of heart disease! All you have to do is floss every other day to see the benefits, as proven by Dr. Gundry’s study.7
5. Get Stinky
Kyolic aged-garlic is proven to reduce plaque buildup in the arteries.8 Take 1200 mg, two times a day.
6. Block Blue Light
Blue light from cell phones, televisions, iPads, Kindles etc upset our natural circadian rhythms and disrupt our REM sleep. This, in turn, stresses the entire body, especially the heart. Try to avoid blue light at night, especially an hour before bed. If you must, wear blue light blocker glasses (with amber lenses).
Getting outside more, especially going camping, helps to reset your circadian clock which helps you get better rest.9
The Cold, Hard Facts on Cholesterol
According to the CDC, more than 102 million American adults have total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dL. More than 35 million of these have levels exceeding 240 mg/dL. Which puts them at high risk for heart disease.10
These are frightening statistics. It’s obvious that many Americans don’t know that they’re at risk – or don’t know how to change that risk.
If you’re carrying a little too much weight, know that you’re eating a poor diet, or have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, you should see your doctor immediately for a very simple cholesterol test. Once you know where things stand, it becomes so much easier to improve your cholesterol.
Taking care of your heart must be at the top of everyone’s list – we’ve only got one engine for life, after all.