High Cholesterol is a very prevalent issue these days. Recent estimates have shown that worldwide, around 28.5 million people from the adult population aged 20 years or older have high levels of total serum cholesterol. This results mostly from a drastic change in lifestyle and dietary habits.
The main problem with high cholesterol is that it can often be without any prevalent symptom which makes it very hard to diagnose.
It is hard to confirm high cholesterol without proper diagnostic tests.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid produced naturally by the body. This fat-like, waxy substance is produced in the liver and is indispensable as it helps in formation of cell membrane, certain hormones, as well as vitamin D.
What causes high cholesterol?
Cholesterol does not dissolve in water and thus can’t travel through the blood. Liver produces lipoproteins to help transport the cholesterol.
The two major forms of lipoprotein formed by liver are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Cholesterols carried by Low Density Lipoproteins are called LDL Cholesterols. Also known as “bad cholesterol,” LDL cholesterol can build up in the arteries and lead to serious health problems, such as heart attack or stroke.
Food containing high amounts of fat content can increase the level of LDL cholesterol in blood. This condition is known as high cholesterol, also called hypercholesterolemia or hyperlipidemia.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL), also referred to as “good cholesterol” helps return the LDL to liver for efficient elimination form body.
In cases where the level of LDL cholesterol is too high or that of HDL cholesterol is too low, fatty deposits build up in blood vessels which makes it difficult for blood to flow through the arteries.
What are the symptoms and health implications of high cholesterol?
The major issue with high cholesterol is that it does not generally show any symptoms. It is however, the reason for many life-threatening emergency events like heart attack and stroke. These occur because high cholesterol forms plaque in the arteries thus narrowing them and hampering the blood flow to various parts of the body.
- Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is also called coronary heart disease (CHD) or ischemic heart disease. It is the most common form of heart disease. It occurs when plaque build-up causes the main arteries that supply your heart with blood to be narrowed or hardened.
Symptoms of CAD include:
- Chest pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in neck, jaw, upper abdomen, or back
Build-up of plaque in the blood vessels can cause the blood supply to be insufficient to many parts of the body, including some very important parts of the brain. This results in stroke. Stroke is a medical emergency.
The symptoms of a stroke are:
- sudden loss of balance and coordination
- sudden dizziness
- facial asymmetry (drooping eyelid and mouth on just one side)
- inability to move, particularly affecting just one side of your body
- slurring words
- numbness in your face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of your body
- blurred vision, blackened vision, or double vision
- sudden severe headache
- Heart Attack
The arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly narrow due to the build-up of plaque. This is called atherosclerosis. This happens slowly over time and has no symptoms. Sometimes a piece of this plaque formed might break off. When this happens, a blood clot forms around the plaque which can block blood flow to the heart muscle and deprive it of oxygen and nutrients.
This deprivation is called ischemia. When the heart becomes damaged, or part of the heart begins to die due to the lack of oxygen, it’s called a heart attack. The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infraction.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- tightness, squeezing, fullness, pain, or aching in your chest or arms
- difficulty breathing
- anxiety or a feeling of impending doom
- nausea, indigestion, or heartburn
- excessive fatigue
- Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries. This blocks the flow of blood into arteries that supply blood to kidneys, arms, stomachs, legs, and feet.
Early symptoms of PAD include:
- body ache
- pain in your legs during activity or exercise, called intermittent claudication
- discomfort in your legs and feet
With progression of PAD, the symptoms might persist even during rest. Since there is reduced blood flow, the symptoms in the later stages are much more severe.
The symptoms in the later stages include:
- thinning, paleness, or shininess on the skin of your legs and feet
- tissue death caused by lack of blood supply, called gangrene
- ulcers on your legs and feet that don’t heal or heal very slowly
- leg pain that doesn’t go away when at rest
- burning in your toes
- leg cramps
- thick toenails
- toes that turn blue
- reduced hair growth on your legs
- decrease in the temperature of your lower leg or foot, compared to the other leg
Who can have high cholesterol?
A blood test is the only way one can confirm high cholesterol. It is advisable to check for high cholesterol if there are certain risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- High stress
- Alcohol consumption
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Improper diet
- Kidney disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones
- Underactive thyroid gland
- Certain medication
There is a genetic condition that can cause high cholesterol. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia. People with this condition can have blood cholesterol levels 300mg/dL or higher as compared to the recommended level of 200mg/dL for healthy adults. They may develop a condition called Xanthoma which can be recognised by yellow patches on the skin, or a lump underneath the skin.
How to manage blood cholesterol level?
According to the American Health Association, cholesterol levels should be checked every four to six years in healthy adults over 20 years of age. More frequent tests are recommended for people with a history of high cholesterol in their family.
Good lifestyle choices such as a healthy diet along with regular exercise are mandatory to control cholesterol levels.
Food high in cholesterol, saturated fats, or Trans fats should be avoided. These include red meat, organ meat, egg yolk, processed food with cocoa butter or palm oil, deep fried foods, certain baked goods, etc.
On the other hand, it is advisable to take lean sources of protein, food with high fibre content, and baked, boiled, steamed, grilled or roasted food.