If your cholesterol levels sound like a “future you” problem, think again. High levels of bad cholesterol aka LDL (low-density lipoprotein) can sneak up on you over time, putting you at risk for serious health issues. So being mindful of your cholesterol levels now can protect you later on. But what’s the best way to keep LDL levels down? We turned to Navya Mysore, MD, a family physician and women’s health expert, to find out.
What’s the difference between good and bad cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the body that helps produce cells and hormones, and contributes to other bodily functions. Bad cholesterol can build up on the walls of your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack. Good cholesterol, aka HDL (high-density lipoprotein), carries LDL away from the heart.
You generally want your LDL to stay under 100 mg/dL, and your HDL levels to be at least 60 mg/dL (although there is such a thing as too much HDL, too, says Mysore).
What are the symptoms of high bad cholesterol?
Here’s the tricky part: “A lot of the time, people don't have symptoms [of high LDL],” says Mysore. High cholesterol can be dangerous for just that reason: You wouldn’t know it’s a concern unless you get tested. That’s why it’s important to get an annual physical, says Mysore. “They should be doing a cholesterol test for you,” which is done with a blood test.
How to lower cholesterol naturally
Genetics and weight can contribute to high LDL, but “for the bulk part of it, it really is your diet,” Mysore says. That means skipping foods that contribute to high LDL like red meat, fried food, and egg yolks. Instead, Mysore suggests adding heart-healthy foods (like fish, avocados, nuts, and yogurt) to your plate. More fiber and less saturated fats also help. “If you have a hard time figuring out what you need to eliminate, a consultation with a nutritionist is not a bad idea,” she says.
Lifestyle changes can also make a difference: Less drinking and smoking, more exercise. Also, be mindful of your stress levels and how you’re sleeping because they can indirectly contribute to high LDL. “If you're stressed, you're likely not going to be having the energy to eat healthy and make those choices that you need to be making. The same thing goes with sleep,” says Mysore.
How to lower cholesterol with medication
Sometimes lifestyle changes aren’t enough. If your LDL level is 190 mg/dL or above, or you have other health issues like high blood pressure or diabetes, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol medication called statins. Your doctor may have you take those meds “for the foreseeable future,” Mysore says. Or you may just need them to bring your LDL levels down initially and then can maintain your cholesterol with lifestyle changes.
Whichever method you go with, Mysore says LDL levels usually come down after about three months.
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