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Although it is by no means the only major risk factor, elevated serum (blood) cholesterol is clearly associated with a high risk of heart disease.
Most doctors suggest cholesterol levels should stay under 200 mg/dl. As levels fall below 200, the risk of heart disease continues to decline. Many doctors consider cholesterol levels of no more than 180 to be optimal. A low cholesterol level, however, is not a guarantee of good heart health, as some people with low levels do suffer heart attacks.
Medical laboratories now subdivide total cholesterol measurement into several components, including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which is directly linked to heart disease, and HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which is protective. The relative amount of HDL to LDL is more important than total cholesterol. For example, it is possible for someone with very high HDL to be at relatively low risk for heart disease even with total cholesterol above 200. Evaluation of changes in cholesterol requires consultation with a healthcare professional and should include measurement of total serum cholesterol, as well as HDL and LDL cholesterol.
The following discussion is limited to information about lowering serum cholesterol levels or increasing HDL cholesterol using natural approaches. Because high cholesterol is linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease, people concerned about heart disease should also learn more about atherosclerosis.
This condition does not produce symptoms. Therefore, it is prudent to visit a health professional on a regular basis to have cholesterol levels measured.
Exercise increases protective HDL cholesterol,1 an effect that occurs even from walking.2 Total and LDL cholesterol are typically lowered by exercise, especially when weight-loss also occurs.3 Exercisers have a relatively low risk of heart disease.4 However, people over 40 years of age, or who have heart disease, should talk with their doctor before starting an exercise program; overdoing it may actually trigger heart attacks.5
Obesity increases the risk of heart disease,6 in part because weight gain lowers HDL cholesterol.7Weight loss reduces the body’s ability to make cholesterol, increases HDL levels, and reduces triglycerides (another risk factor for heart disease).8, 9 Weight loss also leads to a decrease in blood pressure.
Smoking is linked to a lowered level of HDL cholesterol10 and is also known to cause heart disease.11Quitting smoking reduces the risk of having a heart attack.12
The combination of feelings of hostility, stress, and time urgency is called type A behavior. Men,13, 14 but not women,15 with these traits are at high risk for heart disease in most, but not all, studies.16 Stress17 or type A behavior18 may elevate cholesterol in men. Reducing stress and feelings of hostility has reduced the risk of heart disease.19
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2015.