Although cholesterol is often vilified for the role it plays in the development of cardiovascular disease, it's important to understand cholesterol is produced naturally by the body and is absolutely essential for healthy function. Cholesterol not only helps maintain fluidity of the cell membranes, but provides the chemical backbone for all of the body's steroid hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) as well as internally produced vitamin D.
When levels become elevated in the blood -- a condition called hypercholesterolemia -- it 's typically a sign of internal overproduction and/or impaired elimination of cholesterol. Although it was previously believed cholesterol from in the diet played a large role in the development of hypercholesterolemia, more recent evidence suggests a more minor role.
Nevertheless, following a few dietary principles, along with supplementation and exercise, can easily knock 20 or more points off one's blood cholesterol levels. This may reduce or eliminate the need to manage high cholesterol with medications -- some of which may cause troubling side effects.
The Role of Diet
What you choose to put into your body plays a significant role in your cholesterol and while some of the culprits may be obvious, some of the solutions may surprise you. The largest dietary contributors of cholesterol come from land animals, such as beef, pork and chicken, as well as egg and dairy products. Limiting consumption of these foods will reduce the amount of cholesterol coming in from these sources. Land animals which are grass-fed or grass-finished tend to have lower amounts of cholesterol. Seafood -- with the notable exception of shrimp -- also tends to be lower in cholesterol.
As cholesterol is the sister molecule to coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) -- a potent antioxidant also produced internally -- it's possible oxidative damage to the blood vessels causes an increase in production of both CoQ10 and cholesterol. Consuming a wide variety of vegetables and fruits is a great way to increase antioxidant levels. In addition, limiting sugar consumption and other behaviors which increase oxidative damage, such as smoking, can reduce the amount of oxidative damage to the blood vessels. Excess cholesterol is naturally eliminated by the liver through bile secretions into the gut. Fiber present in the diet helps trap the cholesterol, making it more easily eliminated and reducing the propensity for re-absorption of excess cholesterol into the body. Again, eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits is the best way to ensure adequate fiber intake from the diet.
The next best way to lower cholesterol is to get healthier overall. This should include exercise. About 30 minutes of daily exercise that causes the heartbeat to accelerate is ideal. Try these tips to begin a more active lifestyle:
Take the stairs, not the elevator.
Take a walk either before work or during lunch.
If school or the office is close by, ride a bike, roller blade or walk.
Go back to a favorite sport.
For painful joints, try low-impact exercises, like swimming.
As high-intensity cardiovascular exercise -- especially when undertaken without a solid foundation of good nutrition -- can actually increase internal production of free-radicals that cause oxidative damage, it's important to remember not to overdo it on the bike or treadmill. A balanced exercise program, including anaerobic exercise such as lifting weights, is the best approach.
Choosing Supplements for Management
After you've made the appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes, you may still need some additional help. There are a wide variety of dietary supplements that have shown promise in research studies. While they may not necessarily come with the side effects of prescription medications, like statins, they can still interfere with other medications or complicate another existing medical issue. Here are some to discuss with a physician:
While high cholesterol levels are a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the heavy overemphasis on cholesterol in the media can lead one to taking alarmist measures when it's found. To estimate your 10-year risk for cardiovascular disease, use a Framingham Risk Calculator to get a more clear picture before embarking on a medication protocol. While sometimes there isn’t a way to avoid medication, these tips may help prevent the need for it. Working with a physician can help determine the best possible plan to make lowering cholesterol manageable for real, lasting results.
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