Updated: Mar 30, 2021
By Dr. Shreya Batra, ND
First let’s start with the basics – what is cholesterol? And is it all bad?
Cholesterol is made in your liver and has many roles in your body. Cholesterol is divided into two groups: HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (Low density lipoprotein). Let’s talk about both separately:
HDL “good” cholesterol:
This type of cholesterol helps build your cells, and is the main source for building your hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol…etc. It is also needed for the optimal functioning of your nerves and the optimal production of Vitamin D. This type of cholesterol is also needed to protect you from plaque build-up and prevents cardiovascular disease as it helps recycle the ‘bad cholesterol”
LDL “bad cholesterol”:
When elevated, this type of cholesterol increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. When it goes through your bloodstream, it promotes inflammation and can cause plaque build-up – which increases your risk for heart attacks and strokes. Some people are predisposed to increased LDL cholesterol through their genetic makeup. However, the most common cause of increased LDL cholesterol is lifestyle and diet. Lack of exercise, being overweight, and a diet rich in unhealthy (saturated) fats, all promote increased LDL cholesterol.
Testing your cholesterol levels: Cholesterol levels are tested via a blood draw. Optimal levels vary for each person based on personal and family medical history, lifestyle and diet. It also can vary based on age, and even genders. It is important to get your blood work done annually and interpreted by a health care practitioner to ensure that your levels are at the optimal levels for you.
Ways to help improve your cholesterol levels:
Diet – it is important to focus on a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and healthy fats. Ensure that your diet has enough fiber. Fiber is needed to help clear the excess cholesterol from your body and examples include: flax seeds, green vegetables, whole grain, oatmeal…etc.. Furthermore, choosing to include healthy veggies will help increase anti-oxidants in your body and reduce your unhealthy cholesterol levels and reduce the plaque build up. Including unsaturated fats in your diet, such as avocados, nuts, fish, has also been shown to benefit cholesterol levels. Diet is very personalized and there are a variety of other things that you can be doing, which haven’t been discussed, to improve your cholesterol levels.
Exercise- Studies consistently show that aerobic exercise at least 3x/week improves HDL cholesterol and reduce triglycerides. A walk or jog for 30 minutes/day, water-based exercises, dancing, or any type of sport will help you achieve this goal. One study showed that 12 weeks of exercise in obese women significantly reduced LDL levels and reduced plaque build-up. The more you keep it up, the greater the effect.
Stop Smoking and reduce alcohol intake- smoking is a huge risk factor for heart disease. Smoking increases the inflammatory reaction in the body and increases amount of oxidants. This ultimately also impacts the amount of LDL cholesterol and build-up of plaque in the blood vessels. Cessation of smoking is a good start in reversing these harmful effects. As for alcohol, some studies suggest that alcohol in moderation (such as a glass of red wine with dinner) may be beneficial to cardiovascular disease risk. However, increased alcohol intake throughout the week or even binge alcohol drinking may be harmful to cholesterol levels
Weight management: Keeping your weight in an optimal level is also very important to keep your cholesterol levels managed. When overweight, your body’s ability to absorb and remove harmful cholesterol from your body decreases. Furthermore, when overweight, your body’s production of LDL cholesterol rises. Therefore, by losing weight, you would benefit from increased clearance and decreased production of harmful cholesterol.
Supplementation: There are some supplements that can be prescribed to help reduce cholesterol levels if you have already made the lifestyle changes and are still sitting at slightly elevated cholesterol. There are also some supplements, to help prevent deficiencies and support the body, which may be warranted if you are on pharmaceutical medication for cholesterol, such as statins. However, this is an individualized treatment and an important conversation which should be discussed with your Naturopathic Doctor. Have the discussion about which supplementation is right for you.
Your Next Steps:
Get your blood work done, and book an appointment to create a treatment plan that is right for you. Let’s get your heart health back on track by creating a diet, lifestyle and (if needed) supplementation for your cholesterol. Note: Naturopathic doctors can also requisition blood work for you!
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