What To Do If Your Cholesterol Is High

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Wed Aug 16 2023.

Couple jogging.

High cholesterol is one of the most common health problems, affecting up to 94 million Americans aged 20 and older. Unfortunately, high cholesterol rarely presents symptoms, so the only way to know if you’re at risk is with routine blood work. 

Our bodies need some cholesterol to perform basic functions, but too much increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other risks. While there’s no way to reverse high cholesterol entirely, healthy lifestyle changes can keep your cholesterol levels in check and help prevent more serious issues. 

In this article, we explain some simple things you can do if your cholesterol is high. From eating better to regularly exercising, options abound!

What Is High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol occurs when you have too much of a fatty substance called cholesterol in your blood. There are two types of cholesterol:

High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) Cholesterol

HDL, or “good” cholesterol, carries excess fat in your blood back to your liver where it’s eliminated from your body with other waste.

Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) Cholesterol

LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol from the food you eat to your cells. When there’s too much LDL cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in your artery walls. This causes your arteries to narrow, affecting blood flow, and increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke

What You’ll Need

Lowering your cholesterol levels doesn’t require any special equipment. You might benefit from prescription medication at some point in the future. But healthy lifestyle changes are often enough to significantly reduce LDL cholesterol and improve your heart health.

Step 1: Visit Your Doctor for a Cholesterol Test

The only way to know if your cholesterol levels are abnormally high is to undergo cholesterol testing (or a lipid profile) at the doctor. A cholesterol test measures several things, including:

  • LDL or “bad” cholesterol

  • HDL or “good” cholesterol

  • Triglycerides (a type of fat used for energy)

  • Total cholesterol (the combined amount of cholesterol in your blood)

Cholesterol readings are measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL) of blood. A normal, healthy total cholesterol reading is about 150 mg/dL. Any reading of 200 mg/dL or greater is considered high cholesterol or hyperlipidemia.

Try to undergo cholesterol testing once every four to six years. You might need more frequent screens if you have a family history of heart disease or an underlying medical condition that increases your risk of high cholesterol. 

Step 2: Cut Back On Fatty Foods

Most people develop high cholesterol because of their diet. Eating foods with saturated fat, like red meat, butter, and cheese causes LDL or “bad” cholesterol to build up in the bloodstream. You can reduce some of this buildup by eating foods with “healthy” or unsaturated fat. 

These foods include:

  • Avocados

  • Oily fish, like mackerel, salmon, herring, and yellowfin tuna

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Egg yolks

  • Dark chocolate

You don’t have to stop eating junk food altogether, but it’s important to cut back. Working with a registered dietitian or a certified nutritionist can make this process easier. 

Step 3: Move Your Body

Try to do moderate-intensity exercise for at least 150 minutes each week. That equates to about 30 minutes of exercise Monday through Friday or about 20 minutes of exercise every day. 

Several studies have shown that regular exercise increases the levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol in the blood. One study, conducted by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, found that exercise changed the number and size of cholesterol particles in the blood, so much so that they were less likely to clog the arteries.

Don’t feel like you need to sign up for a gym membership to benefit. Low-impact activities like walking, cycling, and swimming are great places to start.

Step 4: Drink Less Alcohol 

Once alcohol is broken down in your liver, it’s converted to cholesterol and triglycerides. As a result, the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to have high cholesterol. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that “drinking less is better than drinking more.” Generally speaking, men can safely have two alcoholic drinks or fewer in a day while women can safely have one alcoholic drink or fewer. 

It’s important to remember that not all alcohol is the same. For example, wine and liquor contain significantly more alcohol than beer. At the end of the day, moderation is key.

Step 5: Quit Smoking

Smoking causes LDL or “bad” cholesterol to cling to the walls of your arteries. It also lowers the amount of HDL or “good” cholesterol in your blood, which helps move bad cholesterol to your liver. Not to mention, smoking increases the risk of other health problems, like heart disease and certain cancers. 

Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but there are a number of free resources that can help, including SAMSHA’s National Helpline and 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Talk to your doctor if you’d like additional help. They can recommend nicotine patches or gum or prescription medications to reduce cravings.

Step 6: Keep Your Stress In-Check

Everyone feels stressed occasionally, but if you regularly find yourself feeling anxious or overwhelmed, it can increase the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. 

Consider that stress hormones cause your liver to produce more LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Stress has also been linked to eating a less healthy diet and having a higher body weight –– both factors that increase the risk of high cholesterol. 

You can’t stop stress altogether, but you can learn to better cope with it. For example, try shortening your to-do list or setting aside half an hour each day for yoga or meditation. Even exercise can help. Moving your body releases endorphins –– chemicals that help you feel good.   

Step 7: Get Plenty of Sleep

When was the last time you got a full eight hours of restful sleep? One study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing found that people who slept six hours or less had higher levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Researchers have also found a link between poor sleep and an increased risk of heart disease. 

Though it isn’t always possible, try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. You can improve your chances by setting up a comfortable sleep environment. Leave electronics outside the bedroom, keep things clean and tidy, and set your thermostat between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 8: Consider Prescription Medication

Most cases of high cholesterol improve with healthy lifestyle changes, like improved diet and regular exercise. But if your LDL and triglyceride levels remain higher than average, you might benefit from prescription medication, like statins. 

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Heart Association recommend statins for four different groups of people:

  • Those with one or more heart disease risk factors and a high 10-year risk of heart attack

  • Those who have heart disease related to hardening of the arteries

  • Those with very high LDL or “bad” cholesterol (190 mg/DL or higher)

  • Those with diabetes

After cholesterol testing, your doctor can make personalized recommendations for you.

What To Do If Your Cholesterol Is High - Commonly Asked Questions

1) What does high cholesterol do to the body?

High cholesterol causes plaque to build up in the walls of your arteries causing them to narrow and affect blood flow. Over time, this buildup can prevent blood from reaching your heart, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. If the plaque breaks off, it can form a blood clot, causing a heart attack or stroke.

2) What is considered healthy cholesterol for adults?

Healthy cholesterol for most adults is:

  • A total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL 

  • LDL cholesterol level of less than 100 mg/dL

  • HDL cholesterol level of greater than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women

3) Do certain health problems increase my risk of high cholesterol?

Yes. Several health problems can increase the risk of high cholesterol, including diabetes, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Postmenopausal women are also more likely to develop high cholesterol due to the natural decrease in estrogen.

Have Questions About Cholesterol or Heart Health? Contact Us!

Here at Carewell, we regularly assist family caregivers with questions relating to cardiovascular health. Whether you’re trying to stock up on heart-friendly snacks or you need help choosing a home blood pressure monitor, we’re here to assist!

Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to support@carewell.com to speak with one of our friendly and knowledgeable Care Specialists today.

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.