As a society, we talk to numerous people about a variety of subjects...a social media post, children, current fashion trends, cute things your fur baby did yesterday, Hollywood celebrities, how to fix a problem at home or work, our plans for the weekend, the weather, what we are making for dinner tonight...but a topic few like to discuss is that of health. It seems taboo to converse with mere acquaintances about it because it should only be shared with your doctor, right? Maybe for some things yes, but for others who might be experiencing similar issues, knowledge is power...power to heal, help, support and inform...which is exactly what I'm hoping this weeks blog will do.
When you read the title above, what was the first thing that came to mind? A typo? Did she really just say that? Or are you one that knows what the group of letters at the top of the page represent? No, it's not a typo and nope I didn't just secretly tell you where to go either. The HDL stands for high density lipoproteins (which are part of a triad that makes up cholesterol) but you already knew that, huh? If you don't, then you learned something new today. Yippee! For the purpose of space and time, we will only be discussing basic concepts of each that together will become the main event. If it sounds a bit like the circus has come to town, there's no clowning around when navigating the truth surrounding them, so hang on tight folks, you're in for a wild ride!
Before we get things rolling, I think a little background check would be appropriate here. First, cholesterol, when we breakdown the meaning, comes from the ancient Greek words chole (bile), stereos (solid) and the "ol" ending refers to having an alcohol base. It was discovered in 1769 by Francois Poulletier de la Salle in a patient with gallstones. Some time later, in 1815, chemist Michel Eugene Chevruel gave it the name cholesterine.
The mere mention of the word cholesterol sends people into a panic. Fear of the waxy, fat-like substance building up in the arteries and potentially causing a heart attack oftentimes is enough motivation to develop better habits. But what if I told you that there is such a thing as "good" cholesterol. Yes you read that right, it is synthesized by our bodies to help make bile acid necessary for digestion, hormones required for multiple functions (like thermoregulation) and vitamin D. High density lipoproteins are the good sterols because they are like vacuum cleaners and carry excess fat molecules away from artery walls, reduce macrophage (white blood cell) accumulation that cause inflammation and swelling, and can help reverse atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) which, in turn, lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Even as a good cholesterol, there can be too much of a good thing. So how much is too much? Good question! Although there is no specific number, most doctors would like to see between 40 - 60 mg/dl for men and 50 - 60 mg/dl if you're female. A reading of below 40 mg/dl for anyone increases the chance of having a medical issue requiring an extended hospital stay. On the flip side having an HDL level above 60 can protect against disease and possibly reduce amounts of its evil twin (LDL). One factor to be aware of when monitoring HDL is that some of the foods that contain these lipoproteins also register high in saturated fat so choose wisely when selecting menu items for your meals. Foods like avocados, chia seeds, flax, nuts, olive oil, salmon, tuna and whole grains are excellent sources.
Remember a paragraph or two ago I said cholesterol was multi-faceted and made up of three parts? Well let's move onto phase two...its evil twin. What goes up must come down. We traveled the high road so are now on the downhill side of the mountain. Bad cholesterol called low density lipoproteins (LDL's) should be avoided as much as possible due to the potential for severe health conditions. For this type of cholesterol, lower numbers are better. An optimal guideline is under 70 mg/dl. How can this be? When I went to school 70 was greater than 40, 50 and 60. If this is the bad stuff, why is this tolerance higher? Are you trying to kill us or something?
Wow! You all are paying attention and yes 70 is indeed higher. The reason is simple...LDL's are produced in the body naturally to allow it to perform at it's best. Since our bodies require a constant supply of lipoproteins, this number should be a bit higher to provide us with proper functioning throughout the entire day. With that being said, very little is actually needed in the diet to attain peak amounts. Adding LDL's into your daily caloric intake poses complications to overall well-being. People with diabetes or heart disease need to maintain even lower levels. Ok, so what can I do if my number is too high? Fortunately, there are things that can help and all involve a lifelong lifestyle change. Lucky for you, none are extremely difficult to achieve.
Dietary changes are usually the easiest. By reducing saturated fats found in red meat and full fat dairy products, eliminating trans fats or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in baked goods, crackers and margarine, eating foods rich in Onega-3 fatty acids like salmon and tuna, increasing consumption of soluble fiber (apples, beans and oatmeal) and adding whey protein, you can significantly lower your LDL's. Exercise also plays a substantial role in lowering "bad" cholesterol. In just 30 mins a day, you may see drastic results. Although probably the most difficult but by far the most important, quitting smoking is another huge factor in LDL numbers. Losing weight (and not being able to find it ever again) greatly contributes to lowering the yuck. Drinking alcohol in moderation has been shown to slighly decrease LDL's and increase "good" cholesterol, but let me emphasize moderation. That averages one drink per day for women and two for men, but depending on body mass, that could differ from person to person. When you have taken all these steps and still find your levels to be risk factors, a doctor may prescribe medication to further assist the reduction of LDL's.
Just a quick little hint to remind you which one is which:
HDL: H=heavenly or healthy=good
LDL: L= lousy or low life span=bad
Hope that helps 😊
The final section of this blog will cover triglycerides...the third constituent of cholesterol. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. What fuel doesn't get used by the body immediately is stored in the fat cells as triglycerides which get used later for energy. Like HDL's and LDL's, there is a target zone (less than 150 mg/dl) which if maintained won't adversely compromise health. Alcohol, high calorie foods, refined grains and starchy foods, saturated and trans fats and sugary foods and/or drinks can cause high levels of triglycerides. Conversely, fatty fish, flax seed, green vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts and spinach, for example), oils such as canola and soy products reduce triglycerides in the blood.
When put together, these "Big 3" make up a larger compound known as cholesterol which, as we discovered along the way, isn't always a bad thing. While it has been feared for decades and given a bad rap, eating a balanced diet filled with vibrant colors and incorporating exercise into a daily routine can change how cholesterol is viewed as a whole. Knowledge is power...power to heal, help, support and inform. Getting up, getting out and getting a move on goes a long way in establishing the "good" and "bad" choices we make, habits we develop and lessons we pass on to the generations yet to come. What steps will you take to improve your numbers? Thank you for reading. Join me next time when we take a peek at another vital element to keep us happy and healthy.