Hesperian Health Guides

Cholesterol and Your Heart

Cholesterol is a waxy liquid with nutrients the body needs. Your body makes some cholesterol and gets more from the food you eat. But too much cholesterol can build up in your arteries, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Cholesterol does this by blocking blood flow, causing dangerous blood clots and swelling.

Cholesterol is measured through a blood test. There are 2 main types of cholesterol:

  • LDL or “bad” cholesterol. When people are told they have high cholesterol, this means the LDL levels are too high.
  • HDL or “good” cholesterol. This protects you from heart disease, heart attack, and stroke by taking bad cholesterol out of your blood.

Many things affect cholesterol levels. For example, the LDL (bad) cholesterol increases as people become older. Also, high LDL cholesterol seems to run in families. Often, you can lower bad cholesterol by:

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  • Limiting the amount and type of fats you eat. Instead of frying, cook meats and vegetables by boiling, grilling, or baking.
  • Eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains helps because these foods have fiber that the body can use to lower bad cholesterol.
  • Losing weight often improves cholesterol. Being heavy or overweight does not.
  • Exercise may help with cholesterol. Sitting a lot does not.

Because cholesterol doesn’t make you feel sick, a blood test to measure cholesterol (lipid panel) is the only way to know if you have this problem. People with diabetes may have more problems with cholesterol.

High cholesterol levels and what to do

High cholesterol becomes more dangerous when combined with other conditions that harm the heart, such as high blood pressure, too much stress, or diabetes. You can improve all of these problems with a healthier diet and more exercise. But if you have made these changes and your cholesterol levels are still high, you may need medicines. A type of medicine called statins stops the body from making more cholesterol and also removes the LDL (bad) cholesterol from the blood. One common statin medicine is called simvastatin.

Statins are also given to people with diabetes and to people who have already had a heart attack or a stroke. For these conditions, statins can help prevent heart emergencies.

You should not take statins if you are pregnant or think you might get pregnant soon since they are dangerous to a baby in the womb.

This page was updated:10 Sep 2019