Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is developed naturally in the body. It performs several vital functions like rebuilding walls surrounding the body’s cells and converting basic materials into certain hormones.
You only need a small amount of cholesterol and almost all of them are produced by your body. Most of the cholesterol in your body (approximately 80%) is produced in your liver. The rest of them come from your diet. This kind of dietary cholesterol is present in foods such as eggs, meat, and dairy products.
If you have too much cholesterol in your bloodstream, you have high cholesterol. High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. For this reason, knowing the cholesterol levels in your blood is quite important to prevent any future heart disease and blockages of blood vessels.
There are two main types of cholesterol you should be aware of:
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol
Most of the LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood. It is mostly unused. Normally, the liver eliminates this extra cholesterol. However, many people have more LDL cholesterol than the liver can handle. So, LDL cholesterol promotes accumulation of cholesterol-rich fatty deposits in arteries. This can cause the arteries to become narrower or blocked, slowing or stopping the blood flow to vital organs, especially the heart and brain. If this affects the heart, it is called coronary artery disease, and it can lead to a heart attack. When the arteries which carry blood to the brain is blocked, then it can lead to a stroke.
In other words, high levels of LDL cholesterol can cause more plaque accumulation and increase the risk of a heart attack, stroke and other diseases. On the other hand, high levels of HDL cholesterol can actually help prevent heart attacks and strokes. HDL gains its “good” name by removing LDL cholesterol from the arteries and tissues and bringing it back to the liver where the excessive LDL cholesterol is broken down.
Risk Factors for High LDL Cholesterol
There are many things that can make you more likely to have high LDL cholesterol levels. These are:
- a family member with high cholesterol
- a family member who have had a heart attack or angina before the age of 50 (man) or 60 (woman)
- having a diet high in animal/saturated fat
- being a type 2 diabetic
- being physically inactive
- age (cholesterol levels rise with age)
- alcohol consumption
- gender (men have higher cholesterol than women)
Many factors affect the level of your LDL cholesterol. For instance, eating foods that are rich in saturated fats and cholesterol is one of the causes of high level of unhealthy cholesterol. Having an inactive lifestyle and being overweight are other factors that can increase your LDL cholesterol levels.
Sometimes, high cholesterol is an inherited genetic condition which is called familial hypercholesterolemia. This condition significantly increases your risk of developing heart disease at an early age.
Moderate (1-2 drinks a day) alcohol consumption increases HDL cholesterol but it does not decrease LDL cholesterol. So, alcohol intake may increase total cholesterol levels.
Certain medical conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, liver disease, and kidney disease can also increase cholesterol levels.
Physical Signs of High Cholesterol Levels
Most people who have high cholesterol do not get any symptoms until cholesterol-related atherosclerosis leads to significant narrowing of the arteries and causes damage to their hearts or brains. However, there are several physical symptoms that can help detect high levels of cholesterol.
1. Sore Hands and Feet
If you have high cholesterol, your hands and feet becomes often sore, because blood vessels in your legs and hands become narrower because of cholesterol buildup. This accumulation generally happens continuously and poor blood circulation and nutrient supply to the extremities make your hands and feet sore.
2. Frequent Tingling
Tingling in the hands and feet is a sign of low blood circulation. This occurs when the blood flow becomes slower because of the high levels of cholesterol in the blood. Poor blood circulation causes nerves in your hands and feet not to get enough nutrients and oxygen, which gives you the tingling sensation.
3. Left Chest Pain
Left chest pain is another sign of high cholesterol levels. Even a minimal plaque creation in any part of the body can decrease blood flow. The heart works more to restore normal blood flow and this can cause pain or palpitation. This pain can also be a sign of a heart attack.
4. Frequent Headaches
Frequent headaches in the back of the head might be a result of clogged blood vessels in the area around the head. If this condition is left unchecked, the blood vessels can rupture and lead to a stroke.
5. Fatty Deposits on Eyelids
Cholesterol deposits can be also accumulated on the eyelids, where they are called xanthelasmas. These deposits indicate that you may have high cholesterol levels.
6. Lumps in the Body
Improper fat metabolism leads to formation of fatty moles or deposits called lipomas. Lipomas are formed between the muscle and skin. They can be observed at any age but mostly late 30s and 40s. Generally, they develop in the abdominal region, neck, legs and arms but some people who have high cholesterol may get them in different parts of the body.
7. Depression and Memory Loss
25% of the total cholesterol in the body is found in the brain. Also, the brain contains more cholesterol than any other organ in the body. According to a study, cholesterol metabolism defect is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative ailments. The study also shows that depression and memory loss can be related to high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol.
If you have high cholesterol levels, you may experience tiredness or fatigue because of the lack of energy you need.
It does not mean that all the people with these signs will have high cholesterol but it is quite important to know the cholesterol levels in your blood to prevent any future heart disease and blockages in blood vessels.
Today, high cholesterol is very easy to diagnose. The only way to know whether your cholesterol levels are too high or not is a blood test. A sample of blood will be taken and it will be analyzed in the laboratory. Your doctor will ask you not to eat or drink anything for at least 12 hours before the test.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) desirable levels should be:
- LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dl
- HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dl or higher
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dl
Your total cholesterol is usually regarded as “borderline high” if it’s between 200 and 239 mg/dl and it is considered “high” if it is above 240 mg/dl.
If your LDL cholesterol is between 130 and 159 mg/dl, it is usually regarded as “borderline high” and it is considered “high” if it is above 160 mg/dl.
If your HDL cholesterol is below 40 mg/dl, it is usually considered “poor”.
Although American Heart Association recommends having your cholesterol levels checked every 5 years if you are a healthy adult over the age of 20, you may need to have your cholesterol checked more frequent if you have an increased risk of high cholesterol due to family history of cholesterol problems or heart attacks at a young age. It is also important to make good lifestyle changes like maintaining an exercise routine, eating a healthy diet, and regularly monitor your cholesterol levels by getting them checked.