Heart disease is a silent killer, accounting for more than 17 million deaths each year around the globe. Although some risk factors, like age and family history, are beyond your control, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Among the factors you can control is your cholesterol level. Your healthcare provider can order blood tests to measure your cholesterol status and the type of cholesterol you’re dealing with. From there, it’s up to you to take action to lower your cholesterol and thereby lower your cardiovascular risk.
Let’s take a look at what cholesterol is and then examine the five most important steps you can take to reduce your cholesterol levels naturally.
Cholesterol lives in every human and animal cell on the planet and plays a vital role in a number of life functions. Cholesterol stabilizes cell membranes, forms the structure for hormones like cortisol, and is essential for the circulation of fat-soluble vitamins like E, K, and oral doses of vitamin D.
You can’t live without cholesterol. But you also can’t live with too much of it. Both too little and too much cholesterol are associated with disease.
There are many types of cholesterol in the body, but physicians mainly focus on two key forms associated with heart disease:
These two main types of cholesterol act as opposing forces in your body that moderate the degree to which cholesterol is being stored in or mobilized from your liver. In general, it’s better to have more HDL than LDL when your total cholesterol (TC) measures are taken.
If you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, your healthcare provider may have told you to reduce your cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, many dietary myths have developed around managing cholesterol.
For example, it’s simply not true that eating eggs or consuming saturated fats from animal products are the smoking guns of heart disease because they contain high amounts of cholesterol. It’s just not that simple. There are many feedback loops involved with the liver and body, so adjusting one factor like dietary cholesterol alone may not lead to the specific changes you hope to see.
But while myths about cutting out one cholesterol-rich food or another might not help you move forward, research shows that you can effectively lower your cholesterol levels with comprehensive diet and lifestyle changes.
Here’s what the latest research shows and how you can benefit from it.
Everyone needs fat in their diets, but which fats you choose can impact your cholesterol levels and heart health.
Trans fats are a type of engineered fat associated with improving the shelf-life of refined and processed foods, but they also damage your heart health.
According to the World Health Organization, the consumption of trans fats is directly associated with the increasing rates of cardiovascular disease seen worldwide and contributes to more than 500,000 deaths each year. Eliminating trans fat from your diet is an immediate step that can rapidly improve your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Although saturated fats have been blamed for decades for increasing LDL cholesterol levels and heart disease risk, the research is not conclusive at this time.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a debate in 2020 regarding whether public guidelines should recommend reducing saturated fat consumption as much as possible: Yes or No. The main issue is whether researchers feel the clinical trials prove the case for or against limiting saturated fat in the diet in relation to heart disease outcomes.
The Debate Consensus paper that followed the Yes/No arguments on dietary saturated fat concluded with some key points of agreement among researchers:
Further research is needed to determine the following points of disagreement that arose from the debate:
So, what can you do when it comes to saturated fats if the research is still working out the details?
If you stick with the points of consensus, then your focus should be on maintaining an overall healthy diet and lifestyle that will reduce your cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease risk over time. Reducing saturated fats as a part of that lifestyle change is a good idea.
Luckily there are several heart-healthy fat options you can readily substitute for saturated fats in your diet.
A 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients followed a cohort from the Brigsella Heart Study (which has tracked 2,939 subjects since 1972) and determined that everyday consumption of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) in cooking and seasoning was associated with lower cardiovascular risk.
EVOO is plant-based and mostly made up of monounsaturated fats. People who regularly used EVOO had different body fat and blood serum profiles than those who used corn oil or saturated animal fats in their diets. Regular dietary use of EVOO was associated with lower blood pressure, lower body fat, reduced arterial stiffness, and less inflammation.
Another option for healthy fats includes those that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil is commonly used as a supplement to increase omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. This supports increases in HDL, the good type of cholesterol.
Other dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
In summary, you can lower your cholesterol levels and choose your fats carefully by:
While you may need to show restraint when it comes to choosing your fats, you can go wild with the plants in your diet. Fill your plate with color!
If you think about a “meat and potatoes” diet as being rather black and white (or perhaps red and white) on your plate, then a plant-based diet is more like a rainbow.
A diet rich in plants can reduce your cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease. Eating fruits and vegetables in their whole state, with minimal processing, is the best way to maximize their vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, fiber, and flavor values.
As mentioned above, the key to lowering cholesterol is less about focusing on any one specific food, and more about creating an overall healthy diet you can sustain for the long term. Be sure to minimize the amounts of refined, processed, or sugar-rich versions of plant-based foods because those can raise LDL and defeat the purpose of adding more plants to your diet. Focus on whole fruits and vegetables that support increased HDL and reduce your heart disease risk.
Your body was made to move. Exercise can improve your HDL levels, which lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease.
In a 2020 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published between 1999 and 2014, regular endurance exercise significantly reduced total cholesterol levels while elevating good cholesterol. The meta-analysis did not show any specific benefits in terms of the type of activity performed but found positive results in any weight class where participants sustained exercise over eight or more weeks.
If you’re just getting started with exercise, be sure to consult your healthcare provider before taking on new activities. Otherwise, focus on incorporating daily movement into your lifestyle so you can reap the cholesterol-lowering benefits of exercise on an ongoing basis.
Stress causes many chain reactions in your body. Among them is the relationship between the stress hormone cortisol, cholesterol levels, and your risk of heart attack and stroke. Cortisol is released when you’re under stress, and it raises your blood sugar levels so your body can react quickly to whatever stressful situation you’re facing. But stress hormones like cortisol also cause your LDL levels to increase while decreasing your HDL levels.
A 2017 study in the journal Medicinefound that mental stresses, particularly at work, were associated with increases in LDL and decreases in the good HDL, but physical activity could protect against these effects. That study pointed to having physical activity at work without psychological stress as a means of keeping cholesterol levels low.
There are many ways you can reduce stress, from yoga and meditation to time in nature, getting regular exercise, and other types of self-care. Taking frequent breaks from stressful tasks at work or home can also help your efforts to reduce your cholesterol levels.
Smoking causes your blood to get “sticky” and increases the chances of clotting and clogged arteries. It also increases the bad LDL while lowering your good HDL. Quitting the habit will significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and can rapidly result in lowered cholesterol levels. It’s time to try butting out if you need to lower your cholesterol levels fast. Consult a healthcare provider for support on how to quit.
Although moderate alcohol consumption can increase your HDL and might be considered “good” for your cholesterol levels, drinking alcohol can lead to other health concerns like depression, liver damage, high blood pressure, and cognitive decline. That means, at best, alcohol is a mixed bag of results.
A 2020 study published in Plos Medicine failed to find a protective relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers suggest that other observational studies that have found such a link might actually be associated with other lifestyle conditions rather than moderate alcohol consumption.
Unlike cholesterol, there is a direct link between sugar in your diet and spikes in your blood sugar levels. Excess sugar consumption causes your liver to make more LDL and less HDL, increasing your chances of building up fatty deposits in your arteries that contribute to cardiovascular disease. There is no nutritional value in adding more sugar to your diet.
If you’re in the habit of eating a lot of sweetened and refined foods, then replacing these with whole fruits and vegetables can result in a reduction in your cholesterol levels quite quickly. Avoiding sweetened drinks, sodas, and fruit juices can rapidly improve your overall health.
Without tests, you can’t sense your cholesterol levels. You often can’t even feel the signs of increased cardiovascular risk. But you can feel the difference that a healthy lifestyle makes to your energy levels, thought processes, sleep patterns, and mood.
Reducing your cholesterol is one part of having a healthy lifestyle that lets you live your best life right now. You can achieve that naturally by focusing on:
A heart-healthy lifestyle supports reduced cholesterol levels, lowered stress, and better quality of life. It’s never too early (or too late) to start making these simple changes that will support your heart, reduce your cholesterol levels, and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.