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There are ways to lower cholesterol without medication!
In America, heart disease is the largest cause of death. While there are many factors at play in the game of heart disease, high cholesterol is a primary player. In fact, 93 million adults have cholesterol levels above the healthy range, leading to the increased risk of heart disease. Heart disease has become an epidemic, however it is for the most part a preventable disease.
Despite common belief, those with high cholesterol aren’t bound to taking medication for life. Through lifestyle and diet changes, you can actually lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event significantly.
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance, called lipids, that are found within our cells. Surprisingly, our body actually needs cholesterol to achieve and maintain optimal health. Fundamentally, cholesterol is responsible for essential functions in the body, like:
Every cell in your body actually needs cholesterol! It helps your cells form membranous layers for protection. Cholesterol is also used to make bile, which is essential for digesting food. Your liver naturally makes enough cholesterol in order for these bodily processes to function properly.
However, cholesterol can be problematic when there is too much in the body. This is where HDL and LDL come into play.
Cholesterol is transported throughout your body in your blood, however it doesn’t dissolve, which means it needs help being carried. It’s therefore transported by molecules called lipoproteins. Different kinds of lipoproteins have different effects on health. HDL and LDL are the primary forms of cholesterol, but most of us likely know them as “good” or “bad” cholesterol.
Here’s how each works in the body…
Once the liver produces as much cholesterol as the body needs, it packs it up along with fat in very-low density lipoproteins (VLDL). VLDL transports the fat to cells and the lipoprotein shifts to low density lipoprotein (LDL).
The LDL then delivers the cholesterol that remains to where it’s needed throughout the body. The LDL cholesterol travels in your bloodstream within your arteries. If you have too much LDL, it can build up and cause plaques on the walls of your arteries, making them narrower. This restricts blood flow, which is very dangerous as it can lead to heart attack or stroke.
High density lipoprotein (HDL) on the other hand, carries cholesterol away from the artery walls, which prevents clogged arteries and its related health complications. When the liver releases HDL, the lipoproteins hunt for unused cholesterol and deliver it back to the liver. While both forms of cholesterol are necessary, this is why HDL is considered “good” cholesterol.
Ideally, total cholesterol levels should remain below 170 mg/dL. Specifically, LDL should be less than 100mg/DL, while HDL should be above 45 mg/dL.
When cholesterol levels are out of balance (too high or too low), the risk for cardiovascular disease increases. Factors like genetics or age can play a role in imbalanced cholesterol levels. As you get older, cholesterol does naturally increase. This doesn’t mean however that as you age, it’s normal for your cholesterol levels to be through the roof. You should still be within the normal range for your age group.
Aside from factors outside your control such as age and genetics, high cholesterol is mainly caused by daily habits that don’t serve your health. Unfortunately, the risk of high cholesterol, and possibly heart disease, increases with the following lifestyle factors.
A processed diet often consists of high levels of trans fats and sugars. Trans fat and cholesterol in food contribute to high blood cholesterol levels. Sugar is a huge contributor to inflammation, which is correlated with high cholesterol as well.
Extra weight, especially around the belly area, is a serious risk factor when it comes to heart disease. Fat around the belly area lays deeper and surrounds your internal organs, particularly the liver. Because it’s in such close proximity to the liver, it turns this excess fat into cholesterol and sends it out into the bloodstream as LDL.
Regular exercise can effectively lower triglycerides and raise HDL levels. Exercise can also stimulate enzymes that help move LDL from the arteries to the liver. And not to mention, exercise is key in reducing extra belly fat.
Cigarettes contain a toxic chemical compound called acrolein. Acrolein affects how your body metabolizes cholesterol. It attacks the protein in HDL which interferes with the body’s ability to naturally cleanse unused cholesterol in the arteries.
Toxins, especially heavy metals, affect the way the body completes essential functions. Researchers have found a correlation between elevated cholesterol levels with elevated levels of heavy metals in the blood such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.
There are also other root causes of high cholesterol, specifically LDL cholesterol, to consider aside from lifestyle factors. If you suffer from high cholesterol that won’t budge, even with a healthy lifestyle, ask your doctor or health practitioner to look into the following possible causes.
We want to look at what else is going on within the body that is a risk factor. Metabolic dysfunction includes conditions that often occur together such as high blood pressure, homocysteine, high blood sugar, diabetes, and high cortisol levels. Remember the body is connected in many ways and if one function is not working properly, several others are likely suffering as well.
Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori) is a common infection of the gut microbiome. It’s a contributor to high cholesterol because it directly correlates with elevated LDL levels. This is due to its effects on metabolizing lipids (AKA LDL and HDL). Studies have shown that successful removal of H. Pylori has favorable effects on total cholesterol and LDL to HDL ratios.
Chronic inflammation stems from a leaky gut, as pathogens are able to make their way into the bloodstream. High LDL levels also reflect high inflammation. LDL is able to bind to and neutralize toxins and pathogens. As a result, the higher the inflammation, the higher the LDL cholesterol.
As for genetics, high cholesterol can run in your family as your genes play a role in how much cholesterol your body makes. However even with genetic predisposition, high cholesterol can sometimes be prevented with the right lifestyle choices.
Thyroid function is HUGE when it comes to high cholesterol. You need thyroid hormones to make cholesterol AND rid the cholesterol you don’t need. When you have hypothyroidism, which is when thyroid hormones are low, your body is unable to break down and remove LDL efficiently.
It’s also important to note that there’s “normal” thyroid function and then “optimal” thyroid function. About 80% of men and women are in the quote on quote “normal” levels when they get tested. Even people with mildly low thyroid hormones can have higher than normal LDL levels (study).
High cholesterol always has an underlying root cause, as do all dysfunctions in the body. The key is identifying, understanding, and addressing the root cause.
If your doctor finds that your LDL cholesterol levels are higher than ideal, he or she will likely prescribe you a medication known as a statin. Statins are the most commonly prescribed medication to help lower cholesterol. They work by inhibiting an enzyme your liver needs in order to produce LDL cholesterol. This therefore reduces the total amount of cholesterol produced in the body.
In severe situations, statins can be an effective and temporary treatment. They should be used to treat high cholesterol in those that are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke. Statins are a life-saving drug when used properly. They are so widely prescribed because the leading cause of death in the United States is coronary heart disease, which occurs when the heart is unable to get enough oxygen rich blood from the arteries due to blockages.
As with any drug, statins come with noticeable side effects, leading many users to look for natural alternatives. For example, because statins inhibit liver enzymes, they can cause liver damage with long-time use.
While statins are necessary in certain circumstances, they’re not meant to be a substitute for dietary and lifestyle changes. Cholesterol medication doesn’t necessarily address why your cholesterol is high in the first place. There is a place for medication like statins and if you are at risk for stroke or heart attack, they are absolutely necessary. However, this does not mean that you take the meds and all is well. In order to truly address your high cholesterol, you need to address the habits that are causing the problem. The goal should be to get you to a place where you no longer need to continue with cholesterol meds.
Important note: In the case of genetics, this may vary and long-term medication may be necessary. There are tests that can determine if your high cholesterol is due to genetic predisposition. Every case is unique and it is very important you speak with your doctor regarding your concerns.
In the case of high cholesterol, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make to reduce overall levels. These lifestyle changes may seem simple, but they are majorly effective! And don’t forget— consistency is key. I suggest focusing on one of these changes at a time and truly adopting them as part of your daily habits and routine.
Movement like walking, weight lifting, yoga, or cycling are essential to keeping your heart (and your body as a whole) healthy. Specifically, movement such as walking 10,000 steps per day is clinically proven to increase HDL cholesterol which improves overall lipids. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore! Find something you actually like doing and stick to it. I love to practice pilates and go on daily walks.
Stress is a big one. Elevated cortisol levels (the stress hormone) wreaks havoc on your health. Don’t forget to take time for yourself to destress. Some great ways to start are to practice meditation, take an epsom salt bath, diffuse essential oils, or start a gratitude journal.
Sunlight in the morning helps to better regulate your circadian rhythm, which is so important for all of the functions of your body to run efficiently. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin D, in which most people are deficient.
As we’ve discussed, the gut is directly correlated to metabolic processes, cholesterol levels, and heart health. It’s important to identify any gut infections through testing and work with a functional medicine practitioner to heal the right way. I encourage you to check out my programs where we do just that, right here.
Sleep is underrated and so important. Without enough sleep, your body doesn’t have enough time to repair, restore and rebuild. You need adequate time in each sleep stage in order for your body to function properly. If you struggle with insomnia, try these natural sleep aids that actually work.
For low-toxin home, beauty, and lifestyle products, check out The Shop. This is where I share tons of resources and products that I actually use and love!
However, most importantly, one of the best natural treatments for cholesterol is actually the food you eat!
As you likely know by now, food is the best form of medicine and the case of high cholesterol is no exception. Luckily, nutrient-dense, whole foods can have a powerful effect on high cholesterol levels. Different foods can lower cholesterol in different ways such as binding to cholesterol and removing it from the body or blocking the body from producing it. These are the most beneficial foods to reduce LDL and increase HDL:
While you might think a low fat diet is best, a low fat diet not only lowers LDL cholesterol levels, but also reduces HDL, or good cholesterol. The body needs fat— just the right kind! Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats are beneficial to reducing overall inflammation, therefore lowering cholesterol levels. Top sources of omega-3’s include wild caught salmon, avocados, flaxseed, chia seeds, olive oil, and raw nuts.
Many whole foods are naturally high in antioxidants to fight oxidative stress and support healthy cholesterol levels. Foods high in antioxidants include blueberries, apples, artichoke, goji berries, spinach, dark chocolate, and green tea.
Superfoods are those highest in vitamins and minerals. They are known to be the best supporters of overall health. These superfood powders are a convenient and delicious way to include more superfoods in your diet:
Fruits and veggies that are rich in vibrant colors are often those highest in nutrients. Each pigment contains unique free radical fighting properties. Eat a variety of these foods to benefit from their unique antioxidants, like polyphenols, quercetin, flavonoids, beta-carotene, and more!
The good bacteria in your gut can actually reduce low density lipoprotein (LDL) from your body! Soluble fiber serves as fuel for this bacteria. The human body can’t digest it on its own, but the good microbes in your gut can. High fiber foods include leafy green veggies, seeds like flax and chia, squash, and berries.
Many times, opting for a nutrient-dense diet and implementing these healthy lifestyle practices, can have a lasting and drastic impact on high cholesterol. However, if you’re still having trouble achieving healthy cholesterol levels, I encourage you to work with a functional practitioner to help you identify the cause of your high cholesterol.
To work one-on-one with me, grab your spot on my waitlist. We use state of the art functional testing to identify your unique imbalances, which will directly impact the protocol that works best for you. Join the waitlist, here!
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-Nikki Yelton, RD
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