Your body, and especially your liver, makes all the cholesterol you need and circulates it through the blood. But cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Your liver produces more cholesterol when you eat a diet high in saturated and trans-fats.
The body’s levels of cholesterol — a waxy, fat-like substance found in all your cells — can tell you a lot about your future heart health. Since having high cholesterol doubles your risk for heart disease, it’s important to take steps for prevention and treatment.
You can’t live without cholesterol. We’re born with cholesterol in our bodies, and infants get more from their mother’s milk; in fact, cholesterol is even added to baby formula. Cholesterol is essential because all of our hormones and cells need it to function properly. It’s also a building block for all of the body’s cells, and it helps the liver make acids that are required to process fat.
Sweating can raise your good cholesterol levels. Aside from eating a healthy diet, including foods like heart-healthy salmon and avocado, you can raise your HDL levels — which protect against heart disease — by working out. The key is to use interval training by exercising at a medium-intensity, sprinkling in bouts of high-intensity.
Watch out for cholesterol-free food. Cholesterol is made by the liver of animals, and it will only be found in animal-based foods, such as meat, milk, and eggs. Certain products can honestly state that they have little or no cholesterol—however, that doesn’t mean they are good for your cholesterol levels. Many fried foods and commercial baked goods contain cholesterol-raising trans fats, most commonly in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats, along with saturated fats, are the main culprits of high cholesterol from food, but they won’t be listed as cholesterol on packaging.
Read ingredient lists and nutrition labels carefully, looking at fat content as well as the cholesterol content, before deeming a purchase a healthy choice.
Women’s cholesterol levels fluctuate over their lifespan. Though women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than men, they may experience a roller coaster ride in levels throughout their lives. During pregnancy, a woman’s cholesterol levels rise, which is thought to help babies’ brains develop. And cholesterol-rich breast milk is thought to be heart-protective for babies as they age. Post-pregnancy, cholesterol levels should return to normal, says Kopecky. But after menopause, women’s LDL cholesterol levels go up, while protective HDL levels decline. By age 75, women tend to have higher cholesterol levels than men.
If you have sky-high cholesterol, it may be partly genetic. But for some families, it’s inevitable that LDL, or bad cholesterol, will be in the unhealthy zone. The disease, known as familial hypercholesterolemia, affects about 1 in 500 people and can cause total cholesterol levels from 300 mg/dL to 600 mg/dL, as well as heart attacks early in life.Some people with familial hypercholesterolemia inherit two defective genes (one from each parent), a much rarer condition that affects 1 in 1 million people; they can have total cholesterol over 1000 mg/dL. Such high cholesterol can cause early death, often before age 20.
Everyone knows that high cholesterol is bad, but very low cholesterol can be unhealthy too. Experts recommend that you keep your total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL, which is about the average for adults. However, below a certain level—generally 160 mg/dL—low cholesterol is associated with health risks, including cancer. Do the health problems cause low cholesterol, or vice versa? Are they even unrelated? It’s not clear. Research shows that some pregnant women with low total cholesterol are more likely to give birth prematurely. Low total cholesterol and LDL levels have even been linked to anxiety and depression.