High Cholesterol Levels: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment Options
Cholesterol is an important compound found within the body. It is a blood fat (also known as a lipid) that contributes to the building and repair of cells and important processes like the synthesis of certain hormones such as those from the adrenal glands and those useful for reproduction. When high cholesterol levels are present, it is often a reference to bad cholesterol (LDL or low density lipoprotein). The American Heart Association explains that high cholesterol can lead to an increased risk of certain cardiovascular conditions like heart disease and heart attacks as well as strokes. High cholesterol is also related to HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein). This is because HDL cholesterol helps to prevent bad LDL cholesterol from attaching itself to the walls of the arteries.
The body makes the large majority (about 75%) of the cholesterol it contains. The cells of the body as well as the liver manufacture it. How much cholesterol the body produces can be influenced by family history as well as lifestyle. While food choices and dietary intake play some role in what causes high cholesterol, the body itself combined with inherent risk factors are largely responsible for the formation of high cholesterol levels.
The problem however is that there is no way in which the body demonstrates that cholesterol levels are higher than they should be. There are no symptoms of high cholesterol according to WebMD, and this is unfortunate because for many people, the condition goes completely ignored until serious health conditions have manifested as a result. Most people feel the same with high cholesterol as they do with healthy cholesterol levels, and there are simply no physical presentations associated with having higher than normal cholesterol levels.
This presents a major diagnosis problem. Now, no reason for confusion here, because diagnosing high cholesterol levels in itself is an incredibly simple process. A blood test is all that is needed to determine not only the levels of both good and bad cholesterol, but also the ratio between the two (a balance which is abundantly important). The cholesterol blood test identifies the amounts of good cholesterol, bad cholesterol and triglycerides (an additional type of fat found in the blood that if elevated alongside increased LDL levels can significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes). So why is this blood test, used to quickly, cheaply and easily identify high cholesterol levels, out of whack ratios and potentially increased cardiovascular risk so problematic? Well, because without symptoms telling people to go get their levels checked, the test does not get performed and thus the affected wait until serious health consequences have arisen before even realizing or understanding that their arteries have been slowly clogging for long periods of time.
Once diagnosed, controlling identified high cholesterol levels begins. This is a much less simple process than diagnosis, however, because many things can contribute to high cholesterol levels in the first place. Thus, there is often not one single method that is appropriate to raise low HDL levels and reduce high LDL levels. A multifaceted approach is best, that emphasizes a healthy lifestyle, risk factor reduction and medication if necessary. The American Heart Association explains that common sense approaches like quitting smoking and adding in moderate exercise several times weekly can help to raise good cholesterol levels and help to control total cholesterol.
However, sometimes cholesterol numbers on a blood test indicate that more drastic action is needed; or, that lifestyle modifications are inadequate to help control increasing cholesterol. In these cases, or those where the need to lower cholesterol fast has arisen, medications are often used. Sometimes, medicines like fibrates, niacin and bile acid resins are used, according to WebMD. However, to lower cholesterol fast, statins remain one of the most popular choices (although their use has been associated in some cases with undesirable side effects).
While high cholesterol medications are important and necessary in some individuals, they are not an excuse not to keep the body as healthy as possible in order to maintain a proper balance of the blood fats and stave off future high cholesterol levels. Exercise and quitting smoking are important, but so is a high cholesterol diet, which WebMD explains includes the inclusion of healthy dietary fibers, fruits and vegetables, beans and omega rich fishes. But, aside from these staples of cholesterol lowering, considering previously taboo options may zing up a cholesterol lowering diet as well. Men’s Health explains that formerly excluded options like eggs and beef may actually be an acceptable part of a cholesterol lowering diet when healthy choices are made. How is this possible? Grass fed cattle for instance, may boast an exponentially impressive omega fatty acid ratio (even comparable to that of fish). And, scrambled eggs, those cholesterol containing yolky monsters, may actually raise good cholesterol instead of bad.
The final component to managing high cholesterol levels is monitoring and maintenance. It is simply impossible to control what you do not know. It is very important that cholesterol levels are monitored in a medical environment. There are cholesterol test kits that are available at drug stores and online. The Mayo Clinic explains that these are ineffective home tools that can provide only a board picture of cholesterol in the body, because they almost often only show total cholesterol. While knowing total cholesterol is important, this number does not show the levels of good and bad blood fats, and thus provide only a partial and fuzzy picture of what is really going on in the body. Additionally, cholesterol test kits do not indicate what type of action needs to be taken. Perhaps a medication change is in order. Or, maybe more dietary considerations need to be made. Regardless, an account of total cholesterol simply will not provide the whole story in terms of achieving better overall health.
Knowing is half the battle. In terms of cholesterol, understanding that there is a problem is the first step in controlling it. If you have risk factors like a family history of heart disease, obesity, smoking, older age, or have certain health conditions like hypothyroidism (which WebMD explains can be a precursor to cholesterol problems talk to your doctor about having a lipid panel performed. The earlier that management begins, the greater the risk of serious conditions later in life as a result of high cholesterol levels can be avoided.