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High Cholesterol Symptoms: What to Look Out For

High cholesterol symptoms are subtle because you don’t generally feel or see them. You could go your whole life not realizing you have high cholesterol until it’s too late.

Cholesterol, a fatty substance found in all cells of the body, is essential for a variety of physiological processes, including hormone generation and cell membrane formation. However, when cholesterol levels exceed the body’s needs, it becomes a double-edged sword, causing serious hazards to cardiovascular health. The slow build-up of cholesterol affects the heart, causing heart disease. This is generally when you notice certain symptoms. 

Join us as we look into cholesterol in-depth – the good, the bad, and how to know the difference so we can make healthy choices. High cholesterol is a silent killer that affects so many people year after year and is not selective about who it targets.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a lipid, a type of fat your body needs to function properly. It is waxy and made by the liver to create hormones, cell tissue, and Vitamin D. The liver keeps your cholesterol levels maintained and balanced as well as protects nerve cells. It makes enough to support what your body needs at the time and gets rid of the excess. There are different names for cholesterol ranging from hypercholesterolemia to lipid disorder, hyperlipoproteinemia, dyslipidemia, and hyperlipidemia.

Cholesterol can’t dissolve in water so it needs help traveling through the body. This is where lipoproteins come in, they transport cholesterol through the body. The cholesterol attaches to these lipoproteins as it moves to where it is needed.
Low-Density Lipoprotein(LDL) Cholesterol

Low-Density Lipoprotein(LDL) Cholesterol

LDLs are also known as bad cholesterol and can accumulate in the arteries. LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to cells in the body. This will effectively cause severe health conditions like a stroke or heart attack.

High-Density Lipoprotein(HDL) Cholesterol

HDLs are referred to as good cholesterol. In order for the liver to eliminate excess cholesterol it needs the HDLs to transport this cholesterol. HDL removes cholesterol from the bloodstream by delivering it back to the liver for elimination. High HDL levels are correlated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

What Is High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol occurs when there are too many lipids in the blood. They accumulate, mix with other chemicals, and block the arteries. This can take many years with no visible symptoms. Plaques start to develop as a result of the accumulation of excess lipids and cause the arteries to harden. This process is atherosclerosis.

If this continues, plaque buildup could block the arteries and reduce blood flow. Ultimately, when the plaque starts to break,  this could form a blood clot that could cause a heart attack or stroke.

High Cholesterol Symptoms

Generally, there are no physical symptoms. You will only know that you have high cholesterol after taking a blood test.

However, there is a rare, visible symptom that may be noticeable.  This symptom is the development of soft, yellowish lesions or growths on your skin called xanthomas. However, not having these isn’t a sign that you don’t have high cholesterol, therefore, it is always best to be sure by taking the blood test.

The symptoms of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke will eventually start to show. You may experience pain in your lower legs, chest pain, slurred speech, pressure, unsteady gait, fullness, or dizziness. Other symptoms could include diabetes, high blood pressure, impotence, or stroke.

LDL cholesterol can cause blood vessels can become restricted causing pain.

High Cholesterol Risk Factors

Family History

Genetics passed down from family members are high-risk factors. These conditions include familial hypertriglyceridemia, familial combined hyperlipidemia, familial hypercholesterolemia, and familial dysbetalipoproteinemia. If a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, has high cholesterol or heart disease, you may be at an increased risk.

Health Conditions 

Certain health conditions may contribute to high cholesterol levels such as an underactive thyroid gland, diabetes, pregnancy, lupus, kidney diseases, hypothyroidism, and polycystic ovary syndrome. 

Here are the most common health conditions that cause high cholesterol:

Chronic Kidney Disease

Chronic kidney disease lowers your HDL levels so the excess cholesterol is left to build up. This, ultimately,  causes plaque build-up to occur a lot quicker due to the increase in triglycerides in the blood caused by this disease. Extra calories turn into triglycerides. If these levels are not kept stable, your body ends up storing more than you will be able to use. Your triglyceride level must be less than 150 mg/dl.

Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD), affects the arteries leading away from the heart to your head, stomach, legs, and arms. However, it mostly affects the arms and legs and often displays no symptoms at first. You may start to feel some symptoms when these arteries are 60 % blocked, this is called intermittent claudication. This feels like a leg cramp when you move or exercise but reduces when you rest this is due to the arteries being blocked thus reducing blood flow to these arteries, which may cause pain.

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease is the most common type of cardiovascular disease. This occurs due to the excess build-up of cholesterol (plaque) in the coronary arteries, causing them to narrow (atherosclerosis). This causes reduced blood flow to the heart, therefore the heart muscle will receive less blood, oxygen, and nutrients. This reduced oxygenated blood flow may cause angina (chest pain) or ultimately even a heart attack.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure or hypertension has a connection with high cholesterol levels. Clogged arteries mean that your heart has to work a lot harder to pump blood and transport oxygen throughout the body. That raises blood pressure in your body causing you to develop a high blood pressure health condition.

Unhealthy Lifestyle

Diet

Eating a lot of processed foods that are high in saturated fats and sugar will cause an increase in bad cholesterol. These foods also lower your good cholesterol levels.

Saturated and trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. You can find these in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and some oils such as palm oil and coconut oil. Trans fats are commonly found in processed meals, fried foods, and some margarines. Removing these fats can help lower LDL cholesterol.

No Physical Activity

A lack of physical activity can cause weight gain and impact the proper functioning of your body. Physical activity can increase your HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol functions as a scavenger, removing excess cholesterol from blood vessels and transporting it back to the liver for processing and excretion, potentially lowering the risk of heart disease.

Medicines

Some depression medications, birth control pills, and diuretics can cause a higher level of bad cholesterol. These may also lower the good cholesterol in your body causing an imbalance.

Testing Your Cholesterol Levels

A cholesterol blood test or lipid panel deciphers how many lipids are present in your blood. There are two types of tests – drawing blood or a finger prick test.

If you have a history of heart disease, high cholesterol, kidney issues, or diabetes then you have a higher risk of high cholesterol. This test needs to be done quite often to ensure your cholesterol levels are balanced.

Cholesterol Testing Guidelines:

Healthy Individuals between the ages of 20 to 65 are recommended to check their cholesterol levels every 4 to 6 years. It is advised to check children between the ages of 9 and 11, however, testing can be done from the age of 2 years old if there is a concern. 

High-Risk Individuals:

  • Men (Ages 45-65): 1 to 2 years are recommended.

  • Women (Ages 55-65): 1 to 2 years.

  • People Over 65: Annual cholesterol tests are advisable (Every year).

Finger-Prick Test

Your finger is pricked with a micro lancer and the drop of blood is placed on a test strip. This test strip is then fed into the cholesterol analyzer. The blood is analyzed after a few minutes. Total cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and triglycerides are commonly measured.

Drawing Blood

Blood will be drawn from a vein in your arm and sent for analysis.

Cholesterol Levels

  • LDL –  must be below 4 mmol/L

  • Total cholesterol must be below 5 mmol/L

  • HDL must be above 1.2mmol/L for women and 1.0mmol/L for men

Ways to Improve Cholesterol

Quit smoking 

Smoking tobacco increases the risk of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, and stroke risk. Smoking tobacco reduces the good cholesterol in your body, upsetting the balance. It is also advised to avoid secondhand smoke.

Eat Healthier

Try and incorporate foods that are low in fat. Eat meals that contain a variety of vegetables and fruits. Avoid saturated fats and incorporate nuts, seeds, avocados, almonds, and walnuts into your diet.

Healthy cells start with a good diet.

Exercise

It is advised to try to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week or 30 minutes per day. Cycling, walking, and swimming will help your heart beat faster. Exercise enhances blood circulation and blood vessel function, which can help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries and lower the risk of high cholesterol.

Maintain a Healthy weight

Exercise promotes weight loss and weight management. Losing extra weight, particularly belly fat, can help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides while boosting HDL cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight is critical for controlling cholesterol and improving cardiovascular health.

Don’t Drink Alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases total cholesterol levels in the body. It also promotes unhealthy weight gain.

Manage Underlying Health issues

Overall, successfully addressing underlying health conditions can help address the fundamental causes of dyslipidemia and improve cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and its complications.

Key Takeaways

Finally, understanding the signs of high cholesterol levels is critical for early detection and efficient treatment. While high cholesterol does not usually cause apparent symptoms, it can lead to the development of major cardiovascular disorders such as heart attacks and strokes.

High cholesterol symptoms are silent but deadly. Bad cholesterol could take years to accumulate in your body and you could be none the wiser which is why it is so important to get tested.

Changing your lifestyle to lower your high cholesterol risk can be life-changing. Eat the right foods, do plenty of physical activity, and make your health a number one priority. Testing your cholesterol should be done during the recommended time frames to ensure you always know your health status to live a long and prosperous life!

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