Hyperlipidemia is the term for high levels of fats (lipids) in your blood. The top two lipids of concern are triglycerides and cholesterol, both of which can jeopardize your cardiovascular health. We have the details on what causes hyperlipidemia, what high blood cholesterol can do to your health, and tips on how to eat a diet for high cholesterol maintenance and improvement (you may even be able to reverse hyperlipidemia without the use of medications).
What Is Hyperlipidemia?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both created within the body, but they can also come from the foods we eat, like red meat, eggs, and full-fat dairy and cheese products. When these lipid levels get too high in your blood, a diagnosis of high cholesterol follows. High cholesterol is the more common name for hyperlipidemia. Let’s quickly explore the causes and risk factors that can lead to high cholesterol, and what high cholesterol could mean for your health.
Causes and Risk Factors for Hyperlipidemia
Not all cholesterol is bad cholesterol.
There are two types: HDL (high-density lipoproteins) and LDL (low-density lipoproteins). HDL cholesterol doesn’t put your health in danger, basically because the higher density of these molecules makes them bigger, which makes them less likely to become lodged in your artery walls. An increase of HDL cholesterol can even help “clean up” LDL cholesterol by sweeping it safely back to the liver, but if you have too much LDL and not enough HDL to clean house, then you have hyperlipidemia.
LDL cholesterol tends to stick to artery walls. Once there, LDL starts to build up and form arterial plaque: these buildups harden and narrow the arteries, which can lead to high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
On top of those risks, the plaque may break off and go traveling through the bloodstream until it finds a passage too narrow to pass through and causes a partial or complete blockage. This can result in a pulmonary embolism, a heart attack, or a stroke depending on where it lodges.
Now that you know what hyperlipidemia is and the dangerous potential consequences of letting it go untreated, here is a list of the risk factors that can cause it.
- A poor diet of too many saturated or trans fats, or too many animal or dairy products
- Vitamin or nutrient deficiencies
- Obesity, particularly excessive belly fat
- Insufficient exercise
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Family history (familial hypercholesterolemia)
- Other conditions like an underactive thyroid, diabetes mellitus, polycystic ovary syndrome, or kidney disease
- Certain medications like diuretics, birth control pills, and some antidepressants
Any one of these causes could lead to increased levels of LDL cholesterol, which in turn could impede your blood flow and cause coronary artery disease, putting you in life-threatening cardiovascular risk. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and across the world, and hyperlipidemia is one of the top contributing factors.
How to Naturally Treat Hyperlipidemia
Lipid disorders like high triglyceride levels (hypertriglyceridemia) or high cholesterol can lead to cardiovascular disease and premature death. Should you experience any symptoms like chest pains, calf cramps while walking, sores on your toes that fail to heal properly, or stroke-like symptoms, it is crucial to consult a medical professional immediately.
Your health care provider will draw for a blood test to examine your lipid profile and total cholesterol levels, and advise you on what you can do to help lower your levels of cholesterol. While that treatment protocol may involve cholesterol-lowering medications, it most likely will also include certain lifestyle changes like increasing exercise and changing the type of fat you consume in your diet.
1. Increased Exercise
If you aren’t getting enough physical activity, you’re probably contributing to having too much cholesterol in your blood. You don’t have to go straight to CrossFit; simply getting in 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a few days a week can help you not only with weight loss, but also with your total cholesterol levels.
By exercise we mean acts as manageable as:
- Evening walks (with or without a family dog)
- Swimming laps in a pool
- Biking to work or to lunch (or getting off the bus a couple stops earlier)
- Joining a gym and signing up for a regular class
- Taking the stairs rather than the elevator
If you’re leading a sedentary lifestyle, the smallest changes can make the biggest difference to your health, your energy levels, and your cholesterol profile.
2. Lose Weight (and Quit Smoking)
Part and parcel with proper exercise and diet (see the next section) is weight loss. While improving your diet and exercise should help you lose weight, it’s important to set and and reach certain weight goals (your doctor will be able to tell you what your ideal weight range is) because body fat, especially around your midsection, directly contributes to your levels of visceral fat. Visceral fat is the type of fat that crowds in among your organs, and it’s also the hardest to lose.
By eating fewer calories than you burn each day, you can begin losing weight safely and steadily right away. Even a small amount of body fat loss can greatly improve your health, as will quitting smoking (if you smoke), or getting your loved one to quit smoking if you live with them. Most smokers have tried to quit once or twice before, and if that’s the case with you, now it’s more important than ever, for the sake of lowering your risk of heart disease. Ask your doctor for advice on how to quit, join a support group, take up chewing gum, throw bones, try hypnotism: anything that helps you quit also helps save your life.
3. Eat an Improved Diet for High Cholesterol
A heart-healthy diet is two-fold: what you should eat and what you shouldn’t. For example, you won’t be eating zero fat, but a diet high in animal fat (red meat, sausage, bacon, eggs) could be problematic, while a diet full of lean foods like fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products may be perfectly fine.
Trade partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (full of trans fats) for cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and swap out starchy carbs like potatoes for foods full of soluble fiber like whole grain rice. Here are some other tips for lowering your LDL and increasing your HDL cholesterol levels with your diet.
By replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, people have been able to lower their LDL cholesterol by up to 11% in 2 months. A few swaps can make a significant positive impact, like nut milks for cow’s milk, or fish instead of beef. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish like herring, mackerel, and salmon also contribute to heart health, and omega-3s are found in walnuts and flaxseeds as well.
Fiber-rich foods like whole grain oats, beans, and fruits like oranges and apples help too. How? Because you can’t digest soluble fiber, but your beneficial gut bacteria can. Not only does having a strong battalion of gut defenders help keep you protected from viruses and bacterial infections, but soluble fiber also helps absorb bile acids (made from cholesterol) and liquid, adding comfortable bulk to your stool so you’re less likely to suffer from constipation or diarrhea.
Herbs, Spices, and Supplements
The American Heart Association has a recipe page for heart-healthy and cholesterol-lowering meals. In those recipes you’ll find ingredients like garlic, ginger, and turmeric: natural spices that can help boost your health. VeggieShake has a long list of smoothie recipes, many of which are designed for weight loss and heart health.
The antioxidants in these herbs and spices can help naturally dilate your blood vessels and improve your circulation, and there are numerous natural supplements (like psyllium husk and niacin, aka vitamin B3, found in certain mushrooms) that can also help, perhaps even to the point that you don’t need pharmaceutical medications to treat your hyperlipidemia, or the side effects they often come with.
Be Heart Smart
Heart-healthy foods include natural whole foods, herbs and spices, and beverages like green tea and moon milk. A heart-smart diet combined with even a light amount of exercise can help you lose weight, improve your blood lipid levels of triglycerides, and lower cholesterol naturally. A condition like hyperlipidemia, if discovered early enough, is a warning that can be heeded—ask your doctor for advice on eating a cholesterol-lowering diet, and it may well improve your life in a multitude of ways.