Cholesterol is a yellow fatty substance present in the body. Though useful for many functions, a high blood level (hypercholesterolemia) is harmful for the health.
Cholesterol helps in building outer membrane of cells. It is the principal ingredient in the digestive juice bile which helps to digest fats.
It is present in the fatty sheaths that insulate nerves and in sex hormones, namely, estrogen and androgen.
It performs several functions such as transportation of fat, providing defence mechanism, protecting red blood cells and muscular membrane of the body. Lipoproteins are particles which transport cholesterol in the body.
They are of high densities (HDL), which are beneficial while low density (LDL) is harmful for the body.
Most of the cholesterol found in the body is produced in the liver. However, about 20 to 30 percent generally comes from the foods we eat. Extra cholesterol is excreted through bowels and kidneys.
Normal level of cholesterol varies between 150- 250 mg. per 100 ml. Cholesterol levels above 250mg/100ml accelerate the deposition of fat in the blood vessels, thus increasing chances of hypertension, heart diseases and strokes.
There is a genetic susceptibility for hypercholesterolemia. Diabetes mellitus also increases cholesterol levels in the blood. Kidney and liver diseases are also known to lead to high cholesterol levels.
Hypothyroidism, which is a state of impaired functioning of the thyroid gland, also augments the cholesterol levels in the body.
Prolonged starving as in anorexia nervosa (a functional disorder in which affected persons mostly young women stop taking food) causes cholesterol levels to rise. Some of the drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS cause hypercholesterolemia as secondary effect.
A high fat diet, lack of physical activity and obesity are direct causative factors for high cholesterol levels and its attendant complications.
Mental stress leads to increased production of adrenaline and cortisol in the body which mobilizes fats causing high cholesterol levels.
Smoking and alcohol intake also raise cholesterol.
When the body’s cholesterol levels become high, it tends to be deposited on skin and tendons (xanthomas).
White or red patches are formed around the eyes which are named as xanthelasma. Hypertension is the direct result of accelerated atherosclerosis. Affection of peripheral blood vessels, causes decreased circulation in limbs causing muscle cramps.
Affection of the coronary vessels which supply blood to heart is responsible for causing heart attacks. Similarly strokes are the result of blood vessels of the brain being affected by high cholesterol levels.
Diagnosis of high cholesterol level is done by simple blood test, sample being taken before food to avoid any bias in the result.
Thus it is important to prevent high cholesterol levels by taking a low fat diet and adequate physical activity. Food items containing saturated fats like cheese, butter, margarine, cream, ghee (butter oil), animal fats used for cooking should be strictly avoided if one has high cholesterol levels or problems related to it like hypertension or cardiac problems.
All meat products except fish are high in cholesterol and therefore should be avoided. Eggs also have very high cholesterol content.
Similarly fried foods are also not suitable for persons having high cholesterol levels. Processed and tinned foods including break fast cereals have a high content of trans fatty acids which are harmful.
Information on their packets showing them to be, “healthy”, is often misleading.
Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, fish and plant products are low in cholesterol and should be the diet of choice.
Alcohol and tobacco not only elevate blood cholesterol levels but are harmful in many ways.
Even if someone is addicted, to them, they should try to give it up.
Adequate physical exercise is must to maintain the ideal body weight and also cholesterol within limits. It is also very important to stay mentally relaxed to avoid high cholesterol levels.
If in spite of the preventive measures, one does have high blood cholesterol levels, it is brought down by suitable drugs. In case of underlying disease causing high blood cholesterol, treatment of that disease reduces the levels.
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