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I'm a Doctor and These are the Worst Things You Can Do For Your Cholesterol

Learn how to avoid making high cholesterol worse from experts.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Cholesterol is a waxy substance our body produces to make healthy cells and certain hormones. Cholesterol is something we need to maintain good overall health and it's also something we can get from food like eggs, cheese, shellfish, fried and processed foods and more. "Cholesterol is important for our body's function but too much can lead to serious medical issues and increase our risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks," Dr. Raed Bargout, Cardiologist and Chief of Cardiovascular Disease with Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital tells us. "There are several types of cholesterol, including total Cholesterol, HDL (good Cholesterol), LDL (bad Cholesterol) and Triglyceride," he adds. "Screening of cholesterol should start at age 20 and then every 4-6 years thereafter."

High cholesterol is a major health problem that affects an alarming amount of Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Nearly 94 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have total cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dL. Twenty-eight million adults in the United States have total cholesterol levels above 240 mg/dL." While there are risk factors that are not modifiable like age and family history, there are plenty of things you can do to get cholesterol  under control. 

There's also lifestyle choices that make the condition worse. Jagdish Khubchandani, Professor of Public Health at New Mexico State University tells us, "People make mistakes in maintaining healthy cholesterol and these can lead to short- and long-term detrimental effects on heart and brain health.  Elevated levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) or lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol) can pose serious threats to health by disruption of structure and function of various parts of the body."  Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About High Cholesterol


Dr. Bargout explains, "High cholesterol happens when high lipids, a complex metabolic process involving several organs starting with intestinal absorption, hepatic synthesis and absorption of the endothelial wall of the arteries. It does consist of exogenous and endogenous processes and pathways. High cholesterol can be due to underlying liver disease, endocrine disorders like thyroid disease and diabetes, excess alcohol or poor eating habits. In some individuals, genetic disorder is responsible for hyperlipidemia. 

At the current time and with the increased rate of obesity, one of the biggest risk factors for high lipids is poor eating habits; a well balanced diet is known to reduce cholesterol level and cut the risk of cardiovascular disease. Avoid processed meat and packaged food, as well as cooked oil. White bread, pasta and rice are composed of simple carbohydrates; when consumed by your body, it breaks down into sugar, leading to elevated blood sugar and high LDL level. Remember that sweetened beverages can lower good HDL and increase LDL."


Monitoring and Maintaining

closeup doctor's hand holding blood sample for cholesterol

Dr. Khubchandani states, "Nearly a tenth of American adults have not had their cholesterol levels checked recently and more than a third have high cholesterol levels.  Cholesterol screenings are widely available and such knowledge can help reduce the levels to prevent long term damage to blood vessels, heart, brain, and kidney along with other body organs. Specifically, severe health outcomes such as heart attacks and strokes can be prevented with early monitoring and aggressive maintenance of healthy levels."

Dr. Bargout adds, "High cholesterol has no symptoms unless it leads to acute pancreatitis most commonly with elevated triglyceride. Or sometimes leads to skin deposits most commonly around the eyelids called xanthoma and xanthelasma. The fact that high cholesterol has no symptoms makes fasting blood testing and screening essential for prevention and therapy. Be familiar with your cholesterol numbers, blood pressure measurement and discuss with your doctor the need for cholesterol lowering therapy if dieting and exercise fails to improve your numbers."


Medication Use, Misuse, Adherence

man eating a burger

According to Dr. Khubchandani, "Frequently, individuals with high cholesterol are prescribed medications (e.g., statins). This could be due to genetic or familial causes of high cholesterol, inability to maintain cholesterol due to lifestyle issues (e.g., unhealthy diet or physical inactivity) or chronic health problems (e.g., comorbid diabetes or obesity). It is critical to take the medications as prescribed, at the same time every day, the same amount every time, and not to skip medications to have the best effect. 

Unfortunately, more than a quarter of adults who are prescribed medications fail to take them regularly or the correct dose or for the duration the medications are prescribed. Sticking to medications as prescribed may reduce the risk of serious heart disease by 25% or more. Preventable causes of death such as heart attacks and strokes are related to appropriate use of cholesterol control medication."


Stress and Smoking

Shocked young woman looking at laptop computer screen at home

According to  Dr. Khubchandani, "The leading causes of death worldwide (e.g., heart disease) are related to stress and smoking. The levels of blood cholesterol are directly related to our stress levels and tobacco smoking habits. Stress and smoking related biochemical and hormonal changes in the body cause spikes in blood sugar and disrupt cholesterol metabolism. 

Excess smoking and stress are directly related to the quantity as well as quality of cholesterol that circulates in our blood. Often, stress and smoking are related with each other and with alcohol abuse. Managing stress and quitting smoking can lead to rapid declines in blood cholesterol and risks for leading causes of death."


Stop with the Sugar and Salt

pouring salt on french fries

Dr. Khubchandani shares, "Sugar and salt make up a major chunk of our diet and both influence circulating blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease directly or indirectly. As the majority of Adults do not consume adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables they rely on unhealthy diets, beverages, and fast food that are rich in sugar and salt increasing the risk of high cholesterol and body fat. 

Consuming foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and drinking adequate water may curb the craving for unhealthy foods leading to reduction in cholesterol levels. Increasing good cholesterol and decreasing bad cholesterol directly related to healthier diets with restricted amounts of sugars and salt. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides many suggestions for maintaining healthy diets that help reduce the risk of high cholesterol by reducing sugar and salt in food."


Sleep, Sedentary Behaviors, Social Isolation

Woman sitting on bed looking at phone bored and in a bad mood

"Excess sugary foods along with lack of physical activity result in body fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol," says Dr. Khubchandani. "Most adults do not meet the physical activity guidelines or engage in recommended levels of exercise. Reduce screen time, keep moving, and maintain active routines. More than a third of adult Americans sleep less than the required number of hours and almost a quarter experience acute insomnia. Many research studies have shown the relationship between sleep duration and cholesterol. 

Exercise and sleep are also linked, so getting enough physical activity will ensure good quality sleep and have multiple effects on blood cholesterol and sugar. Also, our mood and social and physical connections with others can ensure that there are healthy neurotransmitters and chemicals releasing in blood. These can in turn affect stress management and health maintenance. The absence of good sleep, social connections, stress control, and exercise can cause metabolic abnormalities including high cholesterol." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather