73.5 million Americans, 31.7% of the population, have high LDL cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, high cholesterol is one of the biggest controllable risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. When “bad” cholesterol is high, it builds up in the arteries which can cause them to clog over time resulting in heart attack, stroke, difficulty walking, or gangrene depending on which arteries are affected. When “bad” cholesterol builds up in the arteries it forms plaques which causes narrowing of the arteries. The plaques also make the arteries less elastic and less capable of handling the high pressure placed on them by the heart. When the arteries have plaque build-up and become narrower it is called atherosclerosis.
While it may seem like all cholesterol is bad, cholesterol is actually crucial for survival. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in the walls of every cell in the body and is used to make vitamin D, bile, and hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. There are different types of cholesterol, which is where we get the terms “good” and “bad” cholesterol. “Good” cholesterol refers to high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). HDL cholesterol is responsible for collecting extra cholesterol from the tissues and arteries and returning it to the liver to be used for other body processes or excreted. “Bad” cholesterol most often refers to low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) and LDL cholesterol’s function is to take cholesterol from the liver to the body’s cells for use. Unfortunately, LDL cholesterol is messy and drops bits of cholesterol in the arteries as it travels through the bloodstream, which leads to plaque formation. Triglycerides are the last type of “bad” cholesterol and the role of triglycerides is to store excess energy.
There are several things that can directly cause high cholesterol, also called dyslipidemia. Some causes are genetic, which we cannot control, such as familial hypercholesterolemia, hypothryroidism, or chronic kidney disease. Other causes such as being obese/overweight, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol intake, and a diet high in carbohydrates are preventable with a healthy lifestyle. Type 2 diabetes and some medications such as anabolic steroids, progestins, or corticosteroids can also directly cause high cholesterol. Additionally, there are several diseases that can secondarily cause increased LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol.
In order to diagnose high cholesterol, your doctor will need to take a fasting blood sample. The lab will analyze your blood and determine your Total Cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol levels. Your doctor may also have your blood sugar evaluated as well to determine your risk for diabetes and check your blood pressure to make sure it’s not excessively high. Once you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, you have multiple treatment options available.
The most important part of treating high cholesterol can also be the most difficult part, but ultimately is the most rewarding. Adapting a healthy lifestyle is crucial to decreasing “bad” cholesterol and increasing “good” cholesterol, otherwise you will continue to treat the symptoms without addressing the root cause of the issue. First and foremost, stop smoking cigarettes. Smoking reduces HDL “good” cholesterol and increases your risk for heart disease and other diseases. Changing your diet to include more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and unsaturated fats and more dietary fiber helps decrease your “bad” cholesterol levels, will give your body all the helpful nutrients it needs to function at its best, and help you lose weight. Increasing healthy foods in your diet will also make you less likely to eat unhealthy things like saturated fat, high cholesterol foods, and trans fats. Exercising at least 20 minutes three times a week is also very important as it will help you lose weight, decrease “bad” cholesterol, and improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin. If you have any health concerns about starting a new exercise routine talk with your doctor.
If your cholesterol levels are extremely high, you may need more help than lifestyle modification alone. Your medical doctor can prescribe medications such as statin drugs to help reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Make sure to talk with your doctor about all medications you are currently taking and any side effects of the drugs they recommend. Acupuncture can also be very helpful. Research has shown that acupuncture treatment can result in significant changes in body weight, BMI, waist and hip circumference, total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol as well as decreasing inflammation and immunological markers.
While chiropractic care does not have a direct effect on cholesterol levels, your chiropractor can assist you with lifestyle modifications, supplements, and pain/injuries. Chiropractors can help you improve your diet, recommend exercises and supplements, and treat any pain or injuries that are preventing you from having an active lifestyle. There are many supplements available to help decrease LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol so talk with your chiropractor or naturopath about which supplement is right for you. Registered dietitians and personal trainers can also be very helpful if you need help with diet and exercise.
While it may seem overwhelming at first to manage your high cholesterol, reach out to your medical practitioners for support. We can also assess your current cardiovascular risk. We want you to be healthy and balanced and are more than happy to help!