We all need a little bit of cholesterol. Cholesterol is important in building the structure of our cell membranes, as well as the creation of adrenal hormones and hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, in addition to the production of vitamin D and helping our metabolism. However, it’s also possible to have too much cholesterol in the blood, which can stick to the walls of your arteries and cause them to become narrow or blocked, then increasing your risk of developing coronary artery disease. Essentially, high cholesterol can have quite the domino effect on your health. 

There are two main types of cholesterol: LDL (known as the “bad” cholesterol) and HDL (known as the “good” cholesterol.) HDL carries cholesterol from your body to the liver, and then removes it, while LDL causes cholesterol to buildup in your arteries and may lead to the aforementioned complications.  

Cholesterol also comes from two different sources: As a result of your liver creating it, or from the foods you eat. Some of the most common foods known to raise levels of cholesterol include foods high in saturated and trans fats, such as baked foods (i.e. cookies and crackers), as well as full-fat dairy products and red meat. You’re also more likely to have higher, unhealthy cholesterol levels if you are obese, don’t get regular exercise, smoke, or have diabetes. As mentioned, high cholesterol can cause the arteries to become narrow or blocked and may reduce blood flow. Complications that can arise from this include chest pain, stroke, and even heart attack – which can be fatal.  

In order to prevent these complications and to reduce the bad (LDL) cholesterol in your body, you need to be willing to make some changes – most notably with your lifestyle. The DASH diet (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is one that focuses on adding more fruits and vegetables into the diet, while reducing foods known to be problematic to your health. Designed to help reduce high blood pressure, the DASH diet has also been known to be of benefit to people with high cholesterol. To keep your cholesterol levels where they need to be, you should also reduce your sodium intake and eat more whole grains. If you’re someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle, start increasing your movement. You need to get some level of exercise almost every day, for a minimum of 30 minutes. By exercising, you will either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which will help with your cholesterol levels. If you’re a smoker then you should talk to your doctor about quitting, and also avoid alcohol. 

You also need to limit both your total and saturated fat levels – though this depends on how many calories you eat per day. For example, if you consume 1,500 calories per day, you shouldn’t have more than 10 grams of saturated fat and 42 to 58 grams of total fat. 2,000 calories per day = no more than 13 grams of saturated fat, 56 to 78 grams of total fat. 2,500 calories per day = no more than 17 grams of saturated fat and 69 to 97 grams of total fat. Saturated fat is what can cause a significant increase in your LDL levels, which is why these numbers are so important to be aware of. 

The most common way to determine what your cholesterol levels are at is through a blood test known as a lipid panel or lipid profile. This type of blood test can measure your LDL and HDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, as well as a type of fat in the blood known as triglycerides. In order to get the most accurate results, it’s recommended you fast for at least 12 hours prior to having your blood drawn (though drinking a small amount of water is acceptable.) 

If your cholesterol levels remain high after making dietary changes, then you may need to move to the next step of defense against high cholesterol, which is with medications. The type of medication that your doctor will prescribe depends upon your health, age, any risk factors you may have, as well as potential side effects. However, some of the most common medications that are prescribed to treat high cholesterol include statins, bile-acid-binding resins, cholesterol absorption inhibitors, as well as medications that are injectable.