Cardiovascular disease is the most prevalent cause of mortality worldwide. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that high cholesterol – considered to be a significant risk factor for developing cardiac problems - is a hot topic.
Although the prescription drug statins routinely used for managing high cholesterol levels, these don’t come without side effects.
As a result, this article aims to explore natural and evidence-based ways to combat high cholesterol and keep the heart and blood vessels in good working order.
What is Cholesterol?
Firstly, it is essential to understand what cholesterol is, and the role it plays in the body.
Cholesterol is necessary for humans, and when levels are within the norm, it is entirely healthy. The problem lies in uncontrolled levels.
In simple terms, cholesterol is a fatty substance that is produced by the liver, with most of the body’s cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream.
Cholesterol has numerous essential roles such as supporting the structure of cell membranes, synthesizing steroid hormones, insulating nerve cells and creating bile – a substance necessary for digesting fat.
In the bloodstream, there are different types of cholesterol. These categorized as HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and non-HDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.
If there is an excess of bad cholesterol, this can be deposited in the blood vessels, which can cause blockages and subsequent cardiac events.
On the other hand, HDL cholesterol works by transporting excess cholesterol back to the liver for further use or removal from the body.
So as you can imagine, having healthy levels of both types of cholesterol is essential to keep a balance in the body.
Ways to Fight High Cholesterol Levels
Now that we understand what cholesterol is, and how an imbalance can lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD) the next obvious question is what we can do to keep our cholesterol levels healthy.
Not everyone who has high cholesterol is overweight or obese, but this is often the case.
Excessive body fat is harmful to cardiovascular health because it can simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol levels while suppressing HDL cholesterol.
High cholesterol is only part of the problem, however, as obesity often leads to numerous other issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Research also indicates that the length of time spent overweight is an important indicator of future heart issues, so the sooner you slim down, the better.
If you are overweight and suffer from high cholesterol levels, aim to achieve a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less – a healthy weight.
Although reaching a healthy weight is the ultimate aim, research has shown that even losing 5% of your bodyweight has a clinically relevant benefit to health.
Although weight loss is the most powerful way to naturally reduce high cholesterol levels, making positive changes to your diet - independent of losing weight - can also have a big impact.
The research is pretty clear on most aspects of a diet for improving cholesterol levels.
A large-scale study published very recently which compared a vegetarian diet to a Mediterranean diet reported exciting findings.
It is shown that those on the vegetarian diet – eating mostly plants and whole grains, with some nuts, eggs, and dairy - experienced a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol.
Interestingly, a similar Mediterranean diet that included more olive oil, fish, poultry and a small amount of red meat led to a significant reduction in triglycerides.
Although the diets improved overall cholesterol through different mechanisms, the researchers believe they both improved cardiovascular risk factors to a similar extent.
The results of this study reinforce many previous findings that show that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and unsaturated fats can help to keep your heart healthy.
Similarly, diets chronically high in sugar, trans fats, and processed foods result in abnormal (and dangerous) cholesterol readings.
Interestingly, it has been shown that foods naturally high in cholesterol do not necessarily increase blood cholesterol to a notable degree.
As foods such as eggs and seafood are high in many essential nutrients, these indeed belong in a healthy diet.
Aside from the main components of the diet, certain food supplements complement the diet and are proven to lower cholesterol levels.
Two food supplements that have backings from the European Food Safety Authority are plant sterols and red yeast rice, due to substantial scientific evidence showing that they can markedly reduce blood cholesterol.
Plant sterols have a very similar structure to cholesterol and therefore compete with cholesterol for absorption into the body – subsequently lowering blood levels.
Red yeast rice is rich in a compound known as monacolin K, which downregulates the body’s production of cholesterol in a similar way to statins.
Statins, which are some of the most widely prescribed medicines in the world, are also effective but come with side effects, with liver damage being one of the most commonly cited.
To combat the potential liver damage, many people are benefitting from supplementing with lecithin.
Not only is their evidence for lecithin’s ability to reduce high cholesterol, but it can also support liver function, possibly limiting the effect of statins.
Another positive of lecithin is that it can emulsify fats, helping their transport and therefore reducing their deposit in the blood vessels.
Even though supplements can certainly help on their own, the best results will be seen when paired with the dietary recommendations outlined above.
Everyone knows how important exercise and physical activity is, with it having an almost inexhaustible number of positive benefits to the health of the body.
Unsurprisingly, regular exercise can do wonders for our cholesterols levels and cardiovascular health.
Research has consistently shown that exercise can markedly improve HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
When paired with a calorie controlled diet that leads to weight-loss, LDL cholesterol also improves.
Exercise is fantastic for the cardiovascular system in general.
As the heart is a muscle, it adapts to exercise, getting stronger and more efficient.
As the heart gets stronger, it can pump more blood per beat, meaning resting heart rate decreases.
Exercise also helps to manage blood pressure, which is essential for reducing the risk of heart disease and other complications such as kidney damage.
Ideally, everyone should perform a mixture of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises for maximum benefit as research has shown the combination of the two is superior.
Typically, 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week is recommended, which is usually completed in 5 sessions of 30 minutes.
With regards to resistance exercise, 2 weekly sessions on non-consecutive days that stimulate all major muscle groups is the target.
Structured exercise is likely to have the best benefit, but minimizing sedentary behaviors through general physical activity is also very important.
It is very tempting to use the car for short journeys, but walking more frequently can have a significant impact on overall health.
Similarly, small behavior changes like hand-washing the vehicle instead of using the car-wash, or using the stairs instead of the lift will all add up.
Smoking negatively affects the cardiovascular system in numerous ways, with cholesterol levels being one of them.
Contrary to exercise, smoking lowers HDL levels.
There is also evidence showing that tobacco smoking can worsen the effects of LDL cholesterol, as chronic inflammation of the blood vessels leads to a more significant deposit of cholesterol.
The good news is that quitting smoking can improve HDL cholesterol by up to 30% in as little as 3 weeks.
On a more long-term basis (upward of 5 years), the risk of heart disease decreases to a similar level of someone who has never smoked.
Unsurprisingly then, the best thing that a smoker could do for their health is to quit immediately.
The Bottom Line
If you are one of the many people suffering from high cholesterol, and therefore an increased risk of heart disease, you can make powerful changes.
Summarizing the key points of this article, the best behaviors you can make to improve cholesterol levels naturally are:
- To reduce and sustain a weight-loss of at least 5%, but ideally, reduce body mass index below 25.
- To have a diet that includes lots of fruit, vegetables, fiber, and unsaturated fats, while restricting fatty and red meat, trans fats, processed and junk foods and alcohol.
- Avoiding sedentary behaviors, and regularly performing both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities
- Quitting smoking if you are a smoker.
Although relatively simple, the key thing is to ensure you maintain these behavior changes to avoid cholesterol creeping back up.
These behavior changes will all be beneficial in their own right, but the best results will be seen when combined.