September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month

Cholesterol—you hear the word all the time! But what does it really mean, and why should you care? Well, it is National Cholesterol Education Month for one (and no, I didn’t almost forget because cholesterol is boring). If that’s not a good enough reason, then maybe you should care because HIGH CHOLESTEROL CAN KILL YOU. (Read it again, but pretend Darth Vader is saying it!)
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the bloodstream and in cells throughout the body. Cholesterol is not inherently “bad,” and plays a critical role in the formation of cell membranes and hormones. But you only need a small amount of cholesterol to carry out these functions, so when too much cholesterol is present in your body, it becomes a health risk.
To understand this more fully, let’s look at how cholesterol works. Cholesterol doesn’t dissolve in the blood stream. Instead, it is transported in and out of cells by carriers called low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, and high-density lipoproteins, or HDL. When the amount of cholesterol in the blood stream increases, the body needs to create additional lipoproteins to transport them.
LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol, because too much of it results in plaque build-up on the arterial walls. This condition, known as atherosclerosis, hardens and clogs the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. HDL, on the other hand, has been dubbed “good cholesterol,” because it aids in removing cholesterol from the body.
Determining your cholesterol level can be done with a simple blood test. The “normal level” of cholesterol for any individual varies depending upon their age, weight, and sex. Typically, though, an LDL level above 160 is considered high. Similarly an HDL level below 40 is usually too low. Both high LDL levels and low HDL levels can put you at risk for plaque buildup.
About 75 percent of the cholesterol in the blood is made by your liver and other cells in your body. The other 25 percent comes from the food you eat. Cholesterol is found in animal products like meat, eggs, poultry, and liver, which is a particularly high source. This is why eating less saturated fat from animals is a good first step toward lowering your cholesterol to a healthy level. Because high cholesterol can be a big risk factor for both heart disease and stroke, managing your levels is important.
Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oil and certain plant/nut oils. Fish oil contains both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), while some nuts (e.g., English walnuts) and vegetable oils (e.g., canola, soybean, flaxseed/linseed, and olive oil) contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Evidence from several studies has suggested that amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of fish or fish oil supplements lowers triglycerides, slows the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques (“hardening of the arteries”), lowers blood pressure slightly, as well as reduces the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known heart disease. However, high doses may have harmful effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding. Allar benefits are proposed for alpha-linolenic acibenefits are proposed for alpha-linolenic acid, scientific evidence is less compelling, and beneficial effects may be less pronounced.

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