Diet is often a cause of high cholesterol but not the only one. Learn about causes of high cholesterol and how to keep your numbers in the healthy range.
If you don’t know whether your cholesterol level is high or in a healthy range, it’s important to have it checked. There are no symptoms if your cholesterol is too high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out. However, elevated cholesterol, also called hypercholesterolemia, puts you at risk for the two leading causes of deaths in Americans — heart disease and stroke.
The good news is there are many ways you can work with your doctor to lower cholesterol if it’s elevated. But first, you need to know why your cholesterol is high.
Lifestyle choices, including an unhealthy diet, are responsible for most cases of too high cholesterol, the American Heart Association notes. But there are other causes of high cholesterol, too.
Food-related causes of high cholesterol
Regularly eating high amounts of saturated fats can increase low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), also known as the artery-clogging “bad” cholesterol, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute points out. Saturated fats are found in animal products (like full fat dairy products and fatty meats) and in tropical oils (such as palm oil).
Not eating a fiber-rich diet may be one of the causes of high cholesterol, too. The CDC advises eating fiber-rich foods like oatmeal, beans, and whole wheat — along with unsaturated found in foods like olive oil, nuts, and avocados — to help prevent too high levels of LDL and increase the heart healthy “good” cholesterol known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
More lifestyle causes of high cholesterol
Being overweight or obese raises your level of LDL cholesterol because excess body fat changes how your body processes cholesterol. In fact, it hampers your body’s ability to remove the “bad” cholesterol from your blood, allowing it to accumulate.
Are you a couch potato who watches hours of TV at night? Or maybe you spend your days sitting at a desk. If you are not getting regular exercise, your sedentary lifestyle can be a cause of high amounts of “bad” cholesterol and low levels of the beneficial “good” cholesterol.
Smoking also impacts your cholesterol in a negative way. It lowers the “good” cholesterol, especially in women, and increases amounts of the “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood.
Too much alcohol can contribute to elevated and unhealthy cholesterol levels, too. To help keep cholesterol under control, the CDC says men should have no more than two alcoholic beverages per day and women should stick to no more than one.
Medical conditions linked to high cholesterol
Not all causes of high cholesterol can be controlled by lifestyle changes. For example, everyone’s cholesterol tends to increase somewhat as we grow older. In addition, there are several medical conditions that may cause high cholesterol, especially if they are not controlled.
For example, type 2 diabetes lowers “good” cholesterol levels and raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, the CDC points out.
- Hypothyroidism (low thyroid)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
Medication causes of high cholesterol
Certain prescription drugs may also raise your cholesterol levels, according to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute. These medications include:
- Retinoids used to treat acne
- Diuretics (such as thiazide) prescribed for high blood pressure
- Antiarrhythmic medicines, including amiodarone, used to treat irregular heart rhythms
- Immunosuppressive drugs, such as cyclosporine, that treat inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis or to prevent rejection after an organ transplant
- Steroids like prednisone used to treat inflammatory diseases
- Antiretroviral medicines prescribed to treat HIV
Because you have certain medical conditions or need medicine that can elevate your cholesterol does not mean you are doomed to unhealthy amounts of cholesterol. Instead, it means you need to work closely with your doctor to control the high cholesterol risk factors you can change — like losing weight if you need to and eating a healthy diet. You may also be a candidate for the cholesterol-lower drugs called statins.
High cholesterol in your family
Some people inherit a genetic defect that interferes with how their body recycles LDL cholesterol — and that can lead to very high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood.
Known as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), the condition can be dangerous, causing premature heart disease. Men with FH tend to develop heart disease up to 20 years earlier than men without the condition. Half of men with untreated FH will have a heart attack or angina before they reach 50 – and some will suffer heart attacks even in their 20s. FH also greatly increases the risk of heart disease in women, and 30 percent of untreated women with FH will experience a heart attack before they are 60.
If you have the familial type of high cholesterol, it can be controlled successfully. In fact, the American Heart Association reports people with FH have an excellent prognosis if they are diagnosed early and their elevated cholesterol is treated aggressively.
Diet and exercise can help lower “bad” cholesterol, but most people with the family-related cause of high cholesterol need medication. Treating FH typically involves taking at least one statin drug and, sometimes, two. If that’s not enough to lower cholesterol into the healthy range, a different class of cholesterol-lowering medications, like ezetimibe, may be necessary.
Even people with extremely high LDL due to FH can be helped, thanks to a treatment known as LDL apheresis. This procedure, which works much like dialysis, removes excess cholesterol from the blood every few weeks.
June 29, 2018