So, your cholesterol was a bit high on your latest round of bloodwork? Don’t stress just yet! While hearing the words “high cholesterol” emerge from your doctor’s mouth may conjure images of clogged arteries or a future full of prescription bottles and fat-free meals, the truth is, all of these scenarios are highly avoidable.
High cholesterol is estimated to affect about 38% of American adults, and it’s associated with major cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Of the two main types of cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is considered the “bad cholesterol,” as it contributes to processes that drive cardiovascular disease; while HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is considered the “good cholesterol,” as it helps remove LDL from the bloodstream and counter its negative impact.
One of the main issues with cholesterol — specifically high LDL cholesterol — is that it damages your body’s blood vessels and increases deposits of dangerous plaque that impede normal, healthy blood flow, according to Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan.
So it makes sense that your healthcare provider would advise you to get your elevated cholesterol down ASAP. However, many doctors quickly jump to prescribe expensive statins (a.k.a. cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs) as an initial course of treatment, despite the fact that most people can significantly modify their levels with diet and lifestyle changes alone.
Even if your doctor deems that you absolutely should take a statin — say, you have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, which affects about 1 in 500 Americans — making healthy changes may allow you to take a much lower dose, and thus minimize potential side effects.
The great news: These cholesterol-lowering diet and lifestyle changes are all relatively simple and straightforward, and maintaining them over the long haul will yield positive results not only for your heart, but for overall health and vitality.
Below, we explain the important role of cholesterol in the body, how your levels can get out of whack in the first place, and simple natural solutions to get them back in check.
Why High LDL Cholesterol Can Lead to Cardiovascular Problems
Cholesterol isn’t inherently bad; it plays several crucial roles in the body. This waxy, whitish-yellow fat “stabilizes cell membranes, is a precursor for a variety of hormones, and is an important component of bile for digesting fat,” says Dr. Rawls.
Because cholesterol is so vital, the body has the ability to make its own cholesterol. In fact, contrary to popular belief, only about 25% of cholesterol in the body comes from dietary sources of cholesterol or saturated fat (think: from egg yolks, cheese, or steak), while the remaining 75% is synthesized by the liver for use in vital processes in the body.
Excessive carbohydrate (including sugar) intake is actually the main driver of unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels in the body. Here’s why according to Dr. Rawls:
When you eat lots of carbs, your body can’t use them all, so your cells take up as much as they can (as glucose) and the rest end up in the liver where they’re converted to fat.
This fat must then be transported through the blood to your fat tissue via special water-soluble particles called lipoproteins, which are microscopic globules of fat and cholesterol enveloped in a layer of protein.
Once lipoproteins reach your fat tissue, their fatty contents are released into cells and the remnant particles (which now consist mainly of cholesterol and protein) are left floating in the bloodstream. The particles are now called LDL, or LDL cholesterol.
The liver acts like a net and catches many of these LDL particles so they can be safely recycled and recirculated. HDL cholesterol also helps capture and transport LDL to the liver. But the smallest LDL particles are able to slip through the net and stay in the bloodstream, where they can cause problems if present in high enough numbers.
Too many small LDL particles contributes to increased blood viscosity (or thickness), which creates friction that damages blood vessels. When your body tries to heal and repair this damage, it ends up depositing a variety of substances such as platelets and fibrin (collectively called plaque) on vessels and artery walls, which impairs blood flow.
Additionally, circulating LDL particles that are exposed to free radicals in your system — from things like processed foods and toxins — undergo oxidation, which causes them to become sticky and attach to plaque. This exacerbates plaque formation and contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening/narrowing of arteries), heart attacks, and strokes.
There are, of course, other factors at play. But these are the broad strokes of why having elevated LDL cholesterol — particularly in the context of low HDL cholesterol and high levels of free radicals — can be a recipe for disaster.
How to Lower LDL Cholesterol & Combat Its Negative Effects in the Body
From a broad perspective: To reverse the processes above, Dr. Rawls suggests eating a diet primarily composed of whole foods — 50 percent of which should be vegetables, and the rest of which can be things like nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, fruits, fish, and some meat.
Feeling extra motivated?
The 11 strategies below — which have been studied for their cardiovascular benefits — will boost your chances of successfully lowering LDL cholesterol, raising HDL cholesterol, decreasing LDL oxidation, reducing blood viscosity, and more.
1. Scale back on refined carbs + sugar.
As mentioned above, eating more carbohydrates than the body can use increases LDL cholesterol and stimulates the synthesis of cholesterol by the liver. “High carb diets also contribute to elevated triglyceride blood levels, which increases blood viscosity, which is the primary driver of plaque formation,” says Dr. Rawls.
Typically, people eat too many carbs when they come from hyper-palatable food products like refined grains (cereals, breads, crackers, baked goods), fruit juices, and sodas. These foods lack the fiber, protein, healthy fats, and other nutrients that are meant to naturally put the brakes on our appetite once we’ve had enough to eat.
Though starchy whole foods, such as sweet potatoes and lentils, contain lower concentrations of carbohydrates than processed grain-based food products, excessive consumption of carbohydrates, in general, is unhealthy. Anything but light consumption of whole grains is also a problem, especially sourced from wheat and corn, which promote inflammation in the body. Processed food products made from whole grains are just as loaded with carbohydrates and just as bad for you as any other processed food product.
When carbohydrates occur in a healthy nutrient complex such as this, they’re naturally more filling and less likely to spike blood sugar and trigger overeating. In fact, the presence of these other nutrients often has a positive impact on cholesterol levels. Eating just one serving of beans per day, for example, has been associated with significantly reduced LDL cholesterol levels.
2. Bulk up on soluble fiber.
When you’re ramping up your vegetable and plant intake, take special care to include some good sources of soluble fiber such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, sweet potato, carrots, avocado, beans, and oats.
Soluble fiber is a form of indigestible fiber that binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract and transports it out of the body as waste — so it can’t contribute to cardiovascular problems. Fiber also traps toxins in your colon and eliminates them, so they don’t get reabsorbed and generate LDL-oxidizing free radicals.
3. Reach for the right fats.
The quality of fats in your diet significantly affects cholesterol levels and blood vessel health. Try to scale back on saturated fats and refined oils, and focus on healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from sources like olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish.
While saturated fat doesn’t directly increase LDL cholesterol levels, it does increase blood viscosity, which creates friction that damages vessels and indirectly drives arterial plaque formation, explains Dr. Rawls. Partially hydrogenated oils (a.k.a. trans fats) in processed and fried foods contain free radicals that oxidize LDL cholesterol making it more atherogenic and lower beneficial HDL cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), on the other hand, are liquid at room temperature and have a more favorable effect on blood viscosity and cholesterol. Omega-3 fats — a type of PUFA in fatty fish, walnuts, chia, and flax — are particularly beneficial and known to reduce inflammation, elevate good HDL cholesterol, counter free radicals, and reduce blood viscosity and platelet aggregation, which helps reduce arterial plaque formation.
Some foods even deliver a heart-healthy trifecta of good fats, cholesterol-lowering fiber, and antioxidants. One avocado, for example, contains about 50% of your daily value for fiber, antioxidants such as lutein, and loads of MUFAs — and, in a recent study, eating an avocado a day helped lower LDL cholesterol levels, including oxidized LDL.
4. Consider a krill oil supplement.
Even with a healthy diet, most people can benefit from an omega 3 supplement. Dr. Rawls recommends krill oil to reap the benefits of reduced inflammation, platelet aggregation, and viscosity, and protection against free radicals. Some studies have also shown that supplementing with krill oil leads to modest increases in beneficial HDL cholesterol and decreases in LDL cholesterol.
Compared to fish oil, “krill is present in a phospholipid form that’s more easily absorbed by the body and better at thinning the blood,” says Dr. Rawls. Additionally, krill oil contains astaxanthin, — the same compound that gives salmon its pink color — “which is a really potent antioxidant that reduces oxidative stress and the formation of free radicals,” he says.
5. Upgrade your cooking oil.
Upgrading your go-to cooking oil is one of the simplest ways to ensure you’re regularly consuming good fats. Two of the very best to keep in your pantry: Olive oil and avocado oil. Both are predominantly composed of monounsaturated fats, which are associated with increased “good” HDL cholesterol. MUFAs are also less prone to oxidation than polyunsaturated fats, which means they’re less likely to spoil or oxidize into a less healthy form when heated.
Out of the two, research suggests that extra virgin olive oil is the best, thanks to its potent polyphenol antioxidant compounds, like hydroxytyrosol, which curb inflammation and reduce platelet aggregation and LDL oxidation. And if you’re worried about cooking with EVOO, don’t be. Its combination of polyphenols and MUFAs makes it surprisingly heat-stable.
6. Focus on these fruits.
Some fruits are simply too high in sugar to be part of your cholesterol-optimizing daily diet. Berries, however, are an exception and make a smart addition to oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt. Not only are berries a great source of fiber, but these deeply hued fruits are a potent source of antioxidant phytochemicals, particularly anthocyanins.
“I try to eat a cup of blueberries every day because of all the antioxidants in the berries,” says Dr. Rawls. “That can reduce oxidation of fat particles and LDL particles in the blood, which reduces atherogenesis” — which is the formation of fatty plaques in the arteries.
7. Cook with a variety of herbs + spices.
Herbs and spices such as garlic, turmeric, ginger, thyme, and cinnamon not only boost the flavor of your meals without adding significant calories, but they’re potent sources of phytochemicals that support cardiovascular health and optimal cholesterol levels.
Take garlic, for example: “Garlic has a range of heart-friendly and vascular-friendly properties for not only lowering cholesterol, but for thinning the blood and decreasing the deposition of substances like fibrin that contribute to plaque,” says Dr. Rawls. While eating garlic is pretty good, its beneficial compounds — like allicin — are quite volatile, so you may also want to consider a garlic supplement with a stabilized allicin content.
8. Eat more cruciferous veggies.
Cholesterol levels naturally tend to go up as we age — not necessarily because we make more, but because the body loses its ability to remove it from circulation, explains Dr. Rawls. Why, exactly? The liver, which is responsible for processing cholesterol, gradually accumulates damage over time due to toxin exposure, poor diet, and other factors, which impairs its function.
So, to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, you have to protect your liver. The good news: Vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, broccoli sprouts, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, kale) are especially protective of liver function. They contain glucosinolates, including sulforaphane, which aid in the liver’s production of phase one and phase two detoxification enzymes.
9. Consider a milk thistle supplement.
In addition to eating plenty of vegetables, adding a milk thistle supplement to your rotation is also a smart move for maintaining optimal liver function. “Milk thistle is an herb that has been shown to not only protect liver cells, but to promote the regeneration of liver cells,” says Dr. Rawls. Remember, anything that supports optimal liver function helps this vital organ successfully process cholesterol so your levels don’t creep up.
10. Sip on green tea.
You can sip your way to lower cholesterol, too, thanks to beneficial antioxidant compounds in green tea called catechins. In a recent meta-analysis encompassing 31 clinical trials, regular green tea consumption was associated with reductions in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, but no reduction in beneficial HDL cholesterol. And a separate meta-analysis found that each daily cup of green tea corresponded to a 5% decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Don’t love plain green tea? Consider adding a scoop of matcha powder (ground green tea leaves) to a smoothie with greens, berries, and ginger.
11. Move your body daily.
While food may be your most powerful tool in lowering cholesterol and minimizing its negative impact on the body, it’s by no means your only tool. Exercise helps lower LDL cholesterol and increase beneficial HDL cholesterol, too. And you don’t need to start doing Crossfit or training for a marathon either. According to one research review, even just 30 minutes of exercise five days a week can improve cholesterol levels.
Exercise also helps reduce stress and its negative impact on blood vessels. “Stress increases adrenaline and adrenaline increases heart rate,” says Dr. Rawls. “And increased heart rate without increased activity raises pressure in the cardiovascular system.” But when you exercise, you’re essentially “blowing off the pipes” and taking pressure off the system, he says, which minimizes the friction and damage that leads to plaque buildup.
Being told you have high cholesterol may initially feel like a punch in the gut, but it’s nothing to despair over! The dietary and lifestyle tweaks mentioned above are simple, straightforward (and tasty) ways to significantly move the needle in the right direction — and potentially eliminate your need for statins. Maintaining them over the long haul will not only yield positive results for your heart and blood vessels, but for your overall health and vitality, too.