Your liver makes cholesterol, which is used in every cell in your body. It’s a fat-like substance, and it’s important for creating hormones and vitamin D. For such a crucial substance, cholesterol gets a bad wrap. You can blame low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol for that.
Low-density lipoproteins are a type of protein that latches onto the cholesterol produced by your liver. When they combine, they form something called LDL cholesterol. Think of low-density lipoproteins as a taxi that picks up cholesterol molecules from the liver to take them into the bloodstream.
Once in the bloodstream, LDL takes cholesterol to different areas of the body. The problem is that sometimes your body makes too much LDL and you run into a traffic jam. If your LDL cholesterol levels are consistently high, they can start to stick to the walls of your arteries.
When this happens, your immune system comes to the rescue by engulfing the LDL in white blood cells. Unfortunately, this makes things worse. This process creates plaque, which builds up in your arteries over time.
If enough plaque is in your arteries, it narrows the space that blood can pass through. If a chunk of plaque breaks off and gets stuck in a narrow artery, it can drastically reduce or shut off the blood flow to important organs (that’s a stroke) or your heart (that’s a heart attack).
One way to lower your LDL cholesterol is through diet and exercise. For diet, try to eat less saturated fats (found in dairy and red meat). Cut down on trans fats as well (found in fried foods and greasy snacks). When in doubt, check the nutrition label to see what kinds of fats your food contains.
For exercise, aim to get at least 150 minutes of activity per week. All forms of exercise are helpful. If your LDL is high enough, your doctor might recommend a statin drug to lower it. Unfortunately, some people are more likely to have high cholesterol due to their genes, and lifestyle changes might not work.
Another way to lower your LDL is with another type of lipoprotein – high-density lipoprotein. Think of this as the opposite of LDL. Whereas LDL picks up cholesterol and brings it out to the body, HDL picks up cholesterol in the bloodstream and returns it to the liver. From there, the liver can process and discard it.
To raise your HDL levels, proper diet and exercise are key. Medications can’t boost it for you. Quitting smoking is also helpful.