High cholesterol levels are on the rise, putting millions of people at risk for heart disease. Experts recently warned of an impending American obesity crisis, forecasting a fifty percent obesity rate within decades. Normal cholesterol levels are thought to be disrupted by a number of causative factors, including sedentary occupations, poor dietary choices and lifestyle choices.
It’s A Numbers Game – Understanding Cholesterol Levels
Experts recommend that all individuals over the age of twenty have their cholesterol levels checked, at a minimum, every five years. That means that a 31 year old should have had, in their lifetime, 2 cholesterol tests.
These tests are called “lipid profiles”, and are a safe, non-invasive way of measuring lipid levels. Because the risk for high cholesterol increases with age (with men experiencing a rise in numbers first), more frequent testing is suggested for males over 35 and females over 45.
What’s Being Looked For In a Lipid Profile?
- Triglyceride levels are checked. These fats are found in the blood, and come from consumed foods. The greatest cause of increased triglyceride levels are “empty calories” – sugar, refined sugar, alcoholic beverages – and too many unusable calories from other food sources.
- “Bad” cholesterol (LDL, or low density lipoprotein)
- “Good” cholesterol (HDL, or high density lipoprotein)
- The Players In The Game
Triglycerides are the most common form of fat, found in the body and in food. Research has identified higher levels as a risk factor for coronary artery disease.
- Less than 150 is considered Normal
- 150 to 199 is considered Mildly Elevated
- 200 to 499 is considered High
- Above 500 is considered Very High
LDL Cholesterol – the “bad” form of cholesterol – is linked to heart disease, because of its ability to form deposits of arterial plaque. The lower the numbers, the better the outlook. Some experts suggest that those afflicted with diseases of the heart or circulatory system attain LDL levels below 70, and under 100 for diabetic patients or those with other disorders that put them at risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Less than 100 is considered Very Good
- 10o to 129 is considered Good
- 100 to 159 is considered Borderline High
- 160 to 189 is considered High
- Above 190 is considered Very High
HDL Cholesterol – The “good guy”. Unlike triglyceride and LDL levels, an increased HDL reading is considered a positive factor for good health. HDL, though a form of cholesterol, actually protects the heart by displacing LDL, preventing a buildup of arterial plaque.
- Below 50 in women and 40 in men is considered Low, and less than ideal, increasing heart disease risk.
- Above 60 in both genders is considered High, and optimal for lowering risk.
In addition to the individual numbers, a lipid profile factors in HDL, LDL and other lipid measurements to give a numerical score known as Total Cholesterol, with a lower number being preferred.
- Below 200 is considered Desirable
- Between 200 and 339 is considered Mildly Elevated
- Above 240 is considered High
Less Than Perfect Numbers Not A Reason To Panic
Few individuals have perfect lipid profiles in which all numbers match the standards outlined above. Slightly elevated numbers in generally healthy individuals are seldom a cause for serious concern. However, if LDL, triglycerides and total cholesterol are significantly elevated and HDL numbers are below optimal, patients should speak with their doctor about options.
Statin drugs are commonly employed. Patients, however, should be made aware of their risks, including a poor ratio of safety to efficacy, organ damage and permanent muscle weakness. More sustainable, less risky practices are being embraced, including:
- Exercise, both aerobic and weight bearing, has been demonstrated to increase cardiovascular health, lower overall cholesterol levels, reduce weight and further increase capacity for physical activity.
- Quitting smoking and reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption are 2 powerful, beneficial lifestyle choices that anyone can make. Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are linked to cardiovascular disease and a host of other health problems.
- Improving diet, by reducing or eliminating processed fats, processed meats, refined sugar, corn syrup and carbohydrates, and increasing consumption of wild, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fresh fruit, high quality protein and unrefined fat can all have a positive impact on the normalization of cholesterol levels.
- Stress reduction, whether by guided imagery, meditation, yoga, tai-chi, cognitive therapy or other modalities, can have a positive effect on cardiovascular health and sense of well being – in addition, a reduction in chronic stress causes cortisol levels to decline. Excessive cortisol is associated with increased abdominal fat.
- Alternative medicine utilized to reduce lipid levels remains controversial. However, some studies validate claims that numerous plants and herbs contain pharmacologically active compounds with measurable effects on cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels. Individuals considering using such products should consult both with a naturopathic doctor or other alternative healthcare practitioner and their general physician, ensuring both parties are aware of the patient’s intentions and any medications currently taken, in order to avoid drug interactions.