High cholesterol is not just your grandmother’s medical problem:
What does cholesterol do that’s good for all of us? Are there vitamins for cholesterol?
Cholesterol gets a bad rap. Everyone cowers when they hear the word. Perhaps we all envision our grandparents decades ago eating strange, orange colored margarine products in the name of “treating high cholesterol.” Whatever it is we think of, cholesterol seemingly has been near the top of the list of things in our bodies we hope to “control” for as long as we can remember.
But, cholesterol itself hasn’t changed very much. It is still doing its job in many positive ways, while also contributing to some of the negative conditions in our bodies. The way we think of it, however, has changed quite a bit in the last few decades – even in the last few months.
So, what is cholesterol and what does it do for us?
We all need cholesterol. It is an essential component of our cell membranes. Healthy cells need healthy membranes to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. Our brains also use quite a bit of cholesterol to keep our nerves firing smoothly.
So, what is wrong with high cholesterol?
High blood levels of the “wrong” kinds of cholesterol can also cause harm by producing certain fats. These fats start to build up on the walls of our arteries which ultimately can form plaques. If these plaques build up, they can clog the arteries and lead to such things as heart attacks, strokes or trouble with circulation to your limbs. Obviously, these are not good problems to have.
So, how do we know what is bad cholesterol versus what is good cholesterol?
Simple blood tests can measure your cholesterol (best to take this test after a 12 hour fast– no food and only water). The blood test usually breaks down the results into the following categories: HDL, LDL, total cholesterol and triglycerides. Once upon a time we looked at just the total number. But in recent years we have come to understand that at least one of these components is good for us, so looking at the total number can be misleading.
So, what does having high “good” cholesterol (HDL) mean?
The HDL or “High Density Lipoprotein” is actually protective to our heart and circulatory systems. It seems to be the hero in the cholesterol world, perhaps by neutralizing some of the bad stuff. It also may help to thin the blood, preventing clots that can cause blockages in those already narrow arteries. For these reasons, we consider HDL levels over 40 for men (lower expectations there) or 50 for women to be a good thing. By some systems for assessing heart risk, having a high HDL can neutralize another negative risk factor such as high blood pressure or smoking (still not recommended).
So, how do I raise my HDL cholesterol?
There is no doubt genetics play a role in the world of cholesterol. Some people just have lucky genes. Many of us have to fight a little harder to gain entry into the high HDL club. How can we do this? First, exercise! We can’t sing the praises of exercise enough. Not only can exercise help lower the bad cholesterols (more on those to come), but regular aerobic exercise helps your body raise its HDL. How and why is complicated, but suffice it to say that exercise seems to burn off the bad stuff and this tips the balance toward the good stuff. The data is still out as to whether raising this number truly translates into better outcomes, but common sense dictates that more HDL is a good thing.
So, what foods help with HDL cholesterol?
As with many things in life there is a “you are what you eat” component to this. There are many good cholesterol foods and this does not include your grandmother’s orange/yellow tub of margarine. Foods in nature like fish (salmon in particular), avocados, nuts and olives all contain lots of good cholesterol. Therefore, eating those foods is one great way to help increase HDL levels. They are fattier foods by nature and can be high in calories, so moderation is the key. However, the fats they contain are the good ones. Red wine may also play a role in raising HDL. Moderation should be applied here as well. The optimal recommendation for women is one glass of red wine per day.
Other food products that contain plant sterols such as Benecol™ can be helpful in raising HDL. Ground flax seeds or flax seed oil also can be beneficial. The seed must be crushed or ground, otherwise your GI tract does not absorb the good nutrients. We recommend Bob’s Red Mill™ ground flax seeds. These can be purchased in your local grocery store and then added to just about anything (cereal, pancake batter, baked goods, yogurt, salads etc.) and you will barely notice they are there. Flax seed oil can be purchased in either liquid or capsule form.
Perhaps the most widely used product for raising HDL is fish oil or Omega 3 fatty acids. These are supplements that come in capsule, liquid or gummy forms and are rich in the nutrients used to raise HDL. They may also provide some anti-inflammatory affects. However, they should be taken with caution — ensure that the product is free of contaminants such as Mercury (a heavy metal that can be found in fish and cause significant toxicity). A high quality product is essential and the doses must be significant for an effect, totaling at least 1000mg daily of Omega 3s. Many people find certain fish oil products leave a fishy aftertaste or cause an upset stomach. Sometimes these things can be avoided by freezing the pills. A number of people we have spoken with prefer gummy formulations, but these can be costly, high in calories and often require taking many gummies to get a reasonable amount of Omega 3.
So, are there medications for HDL cholesterol?
This is a matter for you and your doctor to discuss. A few medications such as niacin or other cholesterol medications (statin drugs) can be helpful for raising HDL. Unfortunately, they are either poorly tolerated and potentially harmful(as in the case of niacin) or they are more useful for other things, such as lowering LDL or bad cholesterol (as the case of the statin drugs). HDL cholesterol is more of a lifestyle project than a quick medication fix.
So that’s the skinny on good fat and cholesterol. Get to work today on raising your HDL! Stay tuned for more blog posts on other types of “bad” cholesterol and for Vous products containing Omega 3s. Take our vitamin survey to get your personalized all in one vitamin and Find Your Vous!
A Quick Guide to Cholesterol Numbers
|Ideal||Could Be Better||High Risk|
|HDL (“good”)||>50(F) or >40(M)||40-50||<40|
|LDL (“bad”)||<100 (70 is great)||101-159||>190|
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Romy Block specializes in Endocrinology and Metabolism and is mother to three active adolescent boys. Arielle Levitan is a Doctor of Internal Medicine with a special interest in Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health. She is a mother of three teen agers. As professional women with active family lives, they recognize that people often neglect their own health needs and are uncertain about what vitamins to take. Each person is different in her diet, exercise and health history, and will benefit from different nutrients. After years of advising their patients about the proper vitamins to take, Drs. Block and Levitan created Vous Vitamin® to provide people everywhere with quality vitamins that are suited to their individual needs. They are authors of the award winning The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health (She Writes Press, 2015). Take your vitamin survey now to get exactly the right vitamins for your needs.
The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products offered by Vous Vitamin® are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Nothing contained herein is intended to be a diagnosis or constitute medical advice. The symptoms described in this Blog may be a result of a serious medical condition which requires medical treatment. You should consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this Blog and before beginning any vitamin or supplement regimen.