Hypercholesterolemia occurs when blood cholesterol levels are above what is considered optimal or normal.
Although it is estimated that between 5 and 20% of the population suffers from this condition, in most cases it goes unnoticed until it is in an advanced stage because it does not cause symptoms. Find out here what the characteristics of hypercholesterolemia are, how to treat it and what to do to prevent it.
What is cholesterol?
To understand what hypercholesterolemia is, it is necessary to understand what cholesterol is. It is a substance that resembles fat and is found in all cells of the body. It is used to produce vitamin D, hormones and compounds that facilitate digestion.
Although the body can generate it on its own, it also obtains it from different foods, mainly of animal origin, such as cheese or meat.
The blood carries cholesterol to the cells through particles called lipoproteins. Two of the most important are low-density (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol, and high-density (HDL) or “good” cholesterol.
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dl) of blood. These are the corresponding values for each case:
Values for total cholesterol:
- Desirable: less than 200 mg/dL.
- Upper limit of normal range: between 200 and 239 mg/dL.
- High: 240 mg/dL or more.
Values for LDL or “bad” cholesterol:
- Optimum: less than 100 mg/dL.
- Above the optimal value: between 100 and 129 mg/dL.
- High: between 160 and 189 mg/dL. Very high: 190 mg/dL or more.
Values for HDL or “good” cholesterol:
- Considered to provide protection against heart disease: 60 mg/dL or more.
- It is recommended that you increase: between 40 and 59 mg/dL.
- risk factor for heart disease: less than 40 mg/dL.
We speak of hypercholesterolemia when cholesterol levels exceed the values considered optimal or normal.
- How to know if cholesterol levels are high
Why does hypercholesterolemia occur?
Hypercholesterolemia can be due to different factors:
- Unhealthy or unhealthy food: mainly when it is rich in saturated or trans fats. This makes the body consume other nutrients, allowing cholesterol not to break down and accumulate in the arteries.
- Lack of exercise.
- Smoking or drinking alcohol in excess.
- Being over 40 years old.
- Have liver or kidney disease.
- Being overweight or obese.
Another culprit is familial hypercholesterolemia, a hereditary disease caused by a genetic defect that prevents LDL cholesterol from being degraded, so that its levels increase progressively.
In these cases there is an increased risk of early mortality from myocardial infarction or thickening of the arteries, caused by atherosclerosis.
Certain symptoms are often seen as warning signs of hypercholesterolemia, such as:
- Excessive agitation.
- Dry mouth or bad breath.
- Headaches or chest pains.
- Swelling of the extremities.
- Upset stomach or indigestion.
- Loss of balance.
- Vision problems.
- Irregular intestinal transit.
The truth is that high cholesterol levels do not cause symptoms until a cardiovascular problem occurs, so the only way to detect them is through blood tests.
Experts recommend getting your first cholesterol screening between ages 9 and 11, and then every five years. They also advise that men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65 have cholesterol screenings every one to two years, and people over age 65 once a year.
How to treat hypercholesterolemia
Typically, treatment for hypercholesterolemia consists of dietary changes, including more fruits, vegetables, grains, and seeds, while reducing ultra-processed products, alcoholic beverages, and foods high in saturated and trans fats.
Physical activity should also be increased and certain risk factors should be eliminated, such as smoking or being overweight.
- What drinks should you avoid to lower cholesterol?
If these measures are insufficient (something particularly common when you have familial hypercholesterolemia), your doctor may prescribe medication to control LDL cholesterol levels. The most common options are:
- Statins: atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol XL), lovastatin (Altoprev), pitavastatin (Livalo), pravastatin, rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor). They are responsible for blocking a substance that the liver needs to produce cholesterol.
- Ezetimibe (Zetia): limits the absorption of cholesterol contained in the food that is consumed.
- PCSK9 inhibitors: alirocumab (Praluent) and evolocumab (Repatha). They help the liver absorb more LDL cholesterol, which reduces the amount circulating in the blood. They are injected under the skin every few weeks.
- Take care of food: Avoiding processed, refined or sugary products, especially those rich in simple carbohydrates, is essential to control cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. It is also necessary to replace the intake of saturated fats, which are found in meats, for example, with healthy fats, such as the one found in avocado, fish, olive oil or nuts.
- Limit or avoid alcoholic beverages.
- Maintain healthy weight: It is important to consume fewer calories to prevent them from being stored as fat.
- Get regular physical activity: It is recommended to do moderate-intensity exercises five times a week for 30 minutes a day. However, any activity, such as hiking or shopping on foot instead of driving, is a good start.
In severe cases, it may be necessary to frequently undergo a procedure to filter excess cholesterol from the blood or even a liver transplant.
Can hypercholesterolemia be prevented?
Despite its high incidence throughout the world, hypercholesterolemia is a condition that can be prevented if different healthy habits are adopted:
Until there is meaningful scientific evidence from human trials, people interested in using herbal therapies and supplements should be very careful.
Do not abandon or modify your medications or treatments, talk to your doctor first about the potential effects of alternative or complementary therapies.
Remember, the medicinal properties of herbs and supplements can also interact with prescription drugs, other herbs and supplements, and even alter your diet.
Sources consulted: American Heart Association, Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, US National Library of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.