Have you been advised to keep a check on your cholesterol levels recently? While medications can help improve your cholesterol, in most cases making small lifestyle changes is all you need. So, what is cholesterol, and how do its high levels impact health? In this article, we will answer these questions and tell you all you need to know to keep your cholesterol levels down naturally.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, and fatty substance that is produced by your liver. It is also found in animal-based foods. Our body needs cholesterol to support many essential functions like making hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help in digestion. However, excessive amounts of cholesterol in the blood can put people at the risk of a heart attack.
Types of cholesterol
The two main types of cholesterols are high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
Also known as bad cholesterol. It makes up the majority of the cholesterol in the body. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
It is also known as good cholesterol. It absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver. The liver can flush it out from the body. High levels of HDL can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
What causes high cholesterol?
To lower your cholesterol levels, you must first understand what causes high cholesterol levels. The main risk factors for bad cholesterol include –
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
Healthy cholesterol levels
Cholesterol levels vary according to age, weight, and gender.
|Good||Less than 200||Ideal – 60 or higher|
Men – 40 or higher
Women – 50 or higher
|Less than 100|
Less than 70 if coronary artery disease is present
|Less than 149|
|Borderline||200 -239||n/a||130 -159||150-199|
|High||240 or higher||n/a||160 or higher|
190 very high
|200 or higher|
500 very high
|Low||n/a||Less than 40||n/a||n/a|
Ways to lower cholesterol naturally
1. Eliminate trans fats
Trans unsaturated fatty acids, commonly known as trans fats, are unsaturated vegetable fats that have undergone hydrogenation. This process makes them solid at room temperature. Manufacturers like to use them because they are inexpensive and long-lasting. They are often used in margarine, and store-bought cookies, crackers, and cakes.
According to the American Heart Association, trans fats can raise the level of LDL and lower the levels of HDL. According to a study on global health patterns, trans fats are responsible for 8% of deaths from heart disease worldwide (1). You must carefully read the labels of all the foods you purchase. If they mention ‘partially hydrogenated oil,’ it means it contains trans fats, so avoid it.
2. Reduce saturated fats
Saturated fats remain solid at room temperature. Red meat, pork, butter, cheese, chicken with skin, and cooking oils such as palm oil and coconut oil contain saturated fats. A diet rich in saturated fats can increase LDL levels, which may lead to deposits in the arteries. Decreasing your intake of saturated fats can reduce LDL levels.
3. Consume monounsaturated fats
Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Avocados, nuts such as almonds, peanuts, and Brazil nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and sunflower oil contain monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats reduce the oxidation of lipoproteins, which contributes to clogged arteries. According to a 1991 study, replacing polyunsaturated fats with monounsaturated fats reduces the oxidation of fats and cholesterol (2).
4. Eat more polyunsaturated fats
Polyunsaturated fats have multiple bonds that make them behave differently than saturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Consuming these fats can reduce LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease.
During a 2010 study, when volunteers replaced dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, their risk of coronary heart disease dropped by 20% (3). You should also balance your intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Walnuts, fish like salmon, tuna and trout, and oils such are soybean, corn, and sunflower are good sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
5. Increase soluble fiber intake
Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and form a thick, gel-like paste in the digestive tract. Not only is soluble fiber beneficial for digestive health, but it also helps to lower LDL cholesterol and improve heart health. According to research from the University of Connecticut, when 30 adults took 3 grams of soluble fiber daily for 12 weeks, their LDL levels decreased by 18 percent (4). Beans, peas, lentils, fruit, oats, and whole grains are some of the best sources of soluble fiber. You can also take fiber supplements like psyllium husk.
6. Have whey protein
Whey protein is highly beneficial for heart health. Studies have shown that when taken in the form of supplements, whey protein lowers LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and blood pressure. According to a study from Australia, when overweight individuals were given 54 grams of whey protein per day for 12 weeks, it led to a significant reduction in total and LDL cholesterol (5). Dairy products like cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are good sources of whey protein.
7. Drink alcohol in moderation
When consumed in moderation, alcohol has been linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol and reduced risk of heart disease. According to the NIH, one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is the amount that is considered to have a protective effect on the heart. However, too much alcohol can lead to an increase in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which can cause health issues like high blood pressure, heart failure, and strokes.
8. Quit smoking
Smoking changes how the body handles cholesterol. In people who smoke, the immune cells are unable to return cholesterol from vessel walls to the blood for transport to the liver. The researchers concluded that it was tobacco tar, rather than nicotine or carbon monoxide that plays a significant role in the tobacco-induced disturbance of cellular cholesterol homeostasis (6).
During a 2009 study from the Asia Pacific region, researchers found that smoking exacerbates the effects of both total cholesterol and HDL on coronary heart disease (7). Giving up smoking can reverse the harmful effects of tobacco. You can lower your risk of developing heart disease by half within a year of giving up smoking.
9. Exercise everyday
Daily exercise can improve cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercises and cardio workouts are a great way to lower your cholesterol levels and keep you fit. You can increase your activity levels by walking every day, riding a bike, and even playing sports. Resistance training is also helpful in lowering LDL and total cholesterol and keeping your heart healthy (8).
During a 12-week study, twenty participants exercised three days a week for 15 minutes. This exercise included aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, and traditional Korean dance. The results showed that the exercise reduced the harmful oxidized LDL in these women (9).
10. Lose weight
Losing five percent of your total body weight can lower your cholesterol levels. Other than exercising, you can make small changes to your diet to lose weight. Avoid sugary food and beverages and opt for healthy snacks like air-popped popcorn and pretzels.
During a study, 90 adults were assigned different weight loss diets for two years. The researchers observed that these diets increased the absorption of cholesterol and decreased the creation of new cholesterol in the body. Over the two years, HDL levels increased, while the LDL levels remained the same (10).
11. Use essential oils
Essential oils are traditionally used in perfumes and soaps. Research has shown that they can be useful in lowering cholesterol as well. Cinnamon essential oil is known to reduce serum glucose, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. Basil oil has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and cholesterol-lowering actions. Lavender oil, cypress oil, and rosemary oil are also beneficial in lowering cholesterol levels.
Supplements to lower cholesterol
In addition to lowering your cholesterol with diet and exercise, you can also use natural supplements. There have been some studies proving the effectiveness of these supplements, but more though research is needed. Here are some of the popular supplements for lowering cholesterol levels –
- Fish oil
- Red Yeast Rice
- Artichoke leaf extract
- Soy protein
Though diet and lifestyle changes are effective in lowering cholesterol levels, sometimes they are not enough. If your doctor has recommended medication to lower your cholesterol levels, you must take it as prescribed. Continue with your improved lifestyle and diet. These lifestyle changes will help you keep the dose of medication low. Always consult with your doctor before you start using any supplements or essential oils to lower cholesterol.
Final thoughts for lowering cholesterol levels
Our body needs cholesterol to support many essential functions like making hormones, vitamin D, and materials that help in digestion. However, too much cholesterol can put people at the risk of heart attacks. Lifestyle changes like eliminating unhealthy fats, eating more beneficial fats, exercising regularly, losing weight, quitting smoking, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol help lower cholesterol.
You must check with a doctor before taking any supplements to reduce cholesterol. If your doctor has prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication, you must follow the instructions and continue with the changes in your diet and lifestyle.