Cholesterol is naturally produced by your body and is essential for your body in controlled amounts. When your cholesterol levels lose their natural balance, due to weight gain, diet, or genetics, it can cause heart disease, putting you at a greater risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Your liver produces all the cholesterol your body needs, but cholesterol also comes from foods derived from animal products (meat, eggs, dairy products), as well as certain oils. Your body produces more cholesterol when you eat these foods, which can cause your cholesterol levels to go from normal to unhealthy.
Regular cholesterol checks (every 5 years for adults) help identify and address high cholesterol. Your genetics are responsible for a large part of your cholesterol levels but choosing a low cholesterol diet and exercising regularly can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Types of cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad type of cholesterol. It can build up in the arteries’ inner walls (which lead to the heart and brain), increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the good type of cholesterol. It protects against heart disease by removing the bad cholesterol from the arteries.
Triglycerides are another type of fat found in your blood. Similar to LDL, you want to avoid high levels of triglycerides, as they also lead to health problems such as heart disease which can cause heart attack or stroke.
Total cholesterol takes the three different types into account to give you a single measurement or score. Total cholesterol is measured as: LDL + HDL + Triglycerides/5.
Healthy cholesterol levels
The guideline for adults is a total cholesterol score of less than 200 (the lower, the better), HDL: 60 or higher; LDL: lower than 100; and triglycerides: lower than 150. These scores are guidelines provided by the American Heart Association and your doctor should take these scores into account as one factor impacting your overall cardiovascular health. Other risk factors include diet, exercise, smoking and weight.
How to: lower LDL cholesterol levels & increase HDL cholesterol
Diet and lifestyle modifications are the first recommendation for lowering your cholesterol levels. Avoiding tobacco smoke, drinking less alcohol, losing weight and exercising are all important steps in improving HDL cholesterol levels.
Knowing that your body produces enough LDL cholesterol, it’s best to avoid foods high in saturated fat and trans fats that could increase your levels above the “normal” guidelines. Start by limiting or cutting out the following foods from your diet:
- processed meats
- egg yolks
- full-fat dairy products
- fried foods
- sugary treats and candy
Replacing these foods with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, healthy protein sources (low-fat dairy products, low-fat poultry, fish/seafood, and nuts), and non-tropical vegetable oils help to further lower your LDL cholesterol levels.
If diet, exercise, and lifestyle modifications aren’t able to help, your doctor may prescribe medications to help lower your LDL cholesterol and increase your HDL cholesterol.
To lower LDL cholesterol, statins are a common prescription drug that block your liver from making too much cholesterol, while ezetimbe and resins work by blocking cholesterol from your diet. To improve HDL cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe fibrates (to lower triglycerides and increase HDL levels) and niacin (to affect the production of blood fats in your liver). Niacin can have certain side effects and should be used cautiously, especially with diabetic patients as it can raise blood sugar levels.
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