8 Tips for Keeping
Cholesterol Under Control
Every time you turn around it seems like someone else you know is taking
drugs to drive down their cholesterol levels. And while excess cholesterol
can certainly present a cardiac threat, having an entire country on prescription
meds seems like an over-the-top response, doesn’t it? A better idea for
many people would be making the lifestyle changes necessary to
combat cholesterol naturally.
Guess who’s filling prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering medications at a faster pace than anyone else? Not the seniors: Use of such drugs jumped 68% among people ages 20 to 44 over a six-year period, according to a company that manages prescription benefits. That figure accounts for only 4% of this age group—but it’s not a good trend.
Cholesterol isn’t evil; your body actually needs the stuff to build cell walls, among other things. But its waxy consistency means it needs help getting around the bloodstream from carriers known as lipoproteins, and that’s where things get interesting.
Lipoproteins come in two basic types, low density (LDL) and high density (HDL). LDL turns troublesome when it oxidizes, a bodily process similar to the rusting of a car. When this happens, LDL can form plaques in artery walls, which can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke. HDL helps out by dragging cholesterol back to the liver for processing.
Managing cholesterol levels is a basic part of maintaining heart health. So here are eight ways to keep cholesterol under control—and avoid regular trips to the drugstore.
1. Know Your Risks (That Means You Too, Ladies)
You can’t keep cholesterol under control if you don’t know what your levels are. (Females, beware: Women are less likely than men to keep cholesterol within limits.) For LDL a reading over 100 is not good; anything over 160, downright high. (The cutoffs for total cholesterol are 200 and 240.) HDL levels should be at least 40 for men, 50 for women. Have a healthcare professional help you put those numbers in an overall context that includes other cardiac risk factors, such as high blood pressure and smoking.
2. Keep Stress at Bay
It sometimes seems as though there isn’t anything within the body that isn’t mucked up by stress. The cardiovascular system is no exception: Evidence suggests that a disordered response to life’s troubles and cares can throw one’s internal chemistry out of balance, which in turn can contribute to heart woes. But in research presented at an annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, men with the lowest hostility levels—as measured by a questionnaire on coping strategies—boasted better HDL levels than their more hot-headed peers. So for the road warriors screaming at other drivers—calm down already!
3. Get Moving—for Life
Just as stress is associated with all the things that can go wrong with you healthwise, exercise is linked to all that makes for sweetness and light, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular well-being. Getting physical helps your heart pump more efficiently, helps lower both total and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL, and does so while dropping blood pressure.
4. Remember That Calories (Sigh) Do Count
One way to increase your lifespan is to drastically cut your calorie intake, in part because such restriction helps improve the ratio of HDL to LDL. Life extension has been shown in lab mice, who can only eat what they’re fed. Lucky them—they don’t have to ignore culinary enticements on every corner. But going easy on portions even a little is a good idea, and taking a high-quality multivitamin every day can help keep you covered nutritionally.
5. Cut the Sat Fat
For a long time, people thought that cutting every last bit of fat out of your diet was the way to heart happiness. Wrong. The idea is to cut saturated fat, the kind (such as lard) that stays solid at room temperature. This means sticking with such unsaturated fats as olive oil, the stuff that made the Mediterranean diet famous. It also means enjoying the healthy fats found in cold-water fish. These omega-3 fatty acids have been found to cool off artery-harming inflammation, and to help reduce dangerous blood clots and irregular heartbeats.
6. Color Your Diet Healthy
Back when you were blithely ignoring your mom’s pleas to finish your vegetables (and trying to feed the dog broccoli without her noticing), none of us fully realized the power of produce. Today, we know that the phytonutrients in plants not only give fruits and vegetables their brilliant colors but confer a wealth of health benefits, including a considerable cardiovascular assist, on plant-consuming humans as well. So please do eat your veggies; in addition, whole-food concentrates can provide phytonutrient insurance.
7. Supplement Wisely
You’ve heard it before, and it’s still true: A heart-smart lifestyle truly does begin with proper diet and sufficient exercise. But supplements can provide a solid backstop. Besides garlic there’s green tea, linked to reduced heart disease risk; vitamin E, a key antioxidant; plant sterols, which may help block cholesterol absorption; spirulina, linked to lower LDL; guggul, for lower LDL and higher HDL; and nattokinase, which helps fight harmful blood clots.
8. Feast on Fiber
Your body may not be able to digest the fiber found in whole foods, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Fiber not only keeps your intestinal system operating on all cylinders, but the soluble kind (such as the beta glucans found in oats) helps drain your bloodstream of excess cholesterol. Eating a fiber-rich diet also fills you up, which in turn helps head off the obesity that is itself a threat to cardiovascular health.