Calories, fat, pounds, carbs, miles, steps — it’s easy to get overwhelmed with conflicting science and false health fads. So the more complicated things, like cholesterol, often get overlooked.
Cholesterol plays a surprisingly large part in your overall health, and knowing and managing your cholesterol level (plus your other three health numbers — blood glucose, blood pressure, and body mass index) can help prevent health problems down the line. We chatted with Dr. Christina Stasiuk, senior medical director at Cigna, to learn more.
Here are 13 interesting facts about the role cholesterol plays in your body’s health.
1. Cholesterol was first discovered in 1784, so scientists and doctors have been studying it for a long time.
There are two major sub-types of cholesterol: good (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) and bad (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, and triglycerides). Bad cholesterol is a fatty substance that can stick to the linings of your arteries and veins, whereas good cholesterol acts as a sort of broom that helps scrub away those LDL buildups in your body.
2. Your weight isn’t an indicator of your cholesterol level or overall health.
“There are thin people who are at higher risk of heart disease than people who may be overweight but who exercise, don’t smoke, and have normal blood pressure,” says Stasiuk. The only way to know your cholesterol levels for sure is through a blood test.
3. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs on its own.
The body makes both good and bad cholesterol, as they’re both needed to help perform a lot of the body’s necessary functions. It’s only when we consume too much LDL and triglycerides that it becomes “bad” by forming harmful buildup in our veins and arteries.
4. Clogged arteries look like they’re coated in butter.
If your body doesn’t have enough good cholesterol to scrub away sticky buildups, your arteries become clogged with yellow plaque-like fat. If you could slice open a clogged artery and look inside, it would look like it was filled with a thick layer of frozen butter. Uh … yum?
5. You could end up with high cholesterol regardless of your healthy habits — thanks, genetics!
“Familial hypercholesterolemia” is a genetic condition that causes naturally high levels of bad cholesterol. A heart-healthy lifestyle can help, but people with a predisposition for high cholesterol usually also need medication.
Lots of other genetic factors affect heart health too, so the only way to know for sure that your heart is healthy is to consult your doctor.
6. Your body can generate good cholesterol with regular exercise.
According to Stasiuk, there are really no foods or drugs that significantly increase good cholesterol levels. Regular exercise, however, can help the body create the good cholesterol it needs.
7. When it comes to eats, the richest foods are usually the worst for you.
“Bad cholesterol is typically animal-source cholesterol,” says Stasiuk. “The solid stuff — the bacon fat, the fat around a steak. You’re better off having liquid fats, like olive or canola oil or the oily fats you get in fish.” Solid fats are the ones most likely to “stick,” while liquid fats can be cleaned out of the body more easily.
8. Look out for the cholesterol double-whammy: the trans fatty acid.
Two things to look for on nutrition labels are saturated fat and trans fats, both of which raise your LDL levels. But trans fats also lower your HDL, pulling double-duty against your cholesterol health. And both saturated fat and trans fats show up in manufactured foods you might not expect because they help lengthen shelf life. “Think about it this way,” says Stasiuk. “The amount of time that food lasts on the shelf is how long those lipids will be in your body.” Ack!
9. One surprising source of high cholesterol? Coffee.
Don’t worry. Only when it’s unfiltered, like in Turkish or French press coffee, does your morning joe contain a harmful substance called cafestol, which raises bad cholesterol. If you drink drip coffee, you’re good to go. The filter catches cafestol before it hits your cup.
10. Certain foods can help pull bad cholesterol out of the bloodstream and send it out of the body (and it’s not just Cheerios).
Salmon, oatmeal, berries, avocados, beans, nuts, and spinach are all power workers when it comes to scrubbing and flushing out all those sticky cholesterol particles.
11. Women are at a generally lower risk for bad cholesterol levels and heart disease than men — that is, until menopause.
Estrogen helps balance good and bad cholesterol levels in women’s bodies. Once menopause occurs and estrogen levels drop, women’s cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease rise.
12. Cholesterol also plays a big role in keeping your brain healthy. In fact, about 25% of the cholesterol in your body is stored in your brain.
Cholesterol is a structural component of myelin, which is the protective substance that covers the nerve fibers in your brain. Strong myelin sheaths help the brain function, facilitating things like memory and quick thinking.
13. Laughter might be good for your heart.
Research suggests that laughter can trigger a variety of heart healthy reactions in the body. It decreases stress hormones, reduces artery inflammation, and increases good cholesterol. So if you can’t fit in a workout today, make sure you get in a laugh!
The most important part of maintaining good cholesterol health is to be aware of it and, where you can, make lifestyle choices that support it.
It’s not about counting milligrams or calculating intake levels — it’s about making lifestyle choices that benefit you and your body. “It all comes back to this: go, know, and take control,” says Stasiuk. Get your blood tested during annual checkups with your doctor and take the time to make sure you understand your results. Then make small, progressive steps toward better heart health. Nothing drastic and no special secrets — just little changes toward treating your body right!