Although you might fear cholesterol, given its correlation with heart disease, it actually aids in healthy function of your body by producing hormones, building cell tissues and protecting your nerves. Problems arise when too much of this substance circulates through your blood, increasing your risk for heart disease. Your doctor determines this by measuring the amount of cholesterol in your system; if your levels exceed healthy amounts, treatment might be necessary.
As of April 2011, approximately 102 million adults in America have cholesterol levels above 200 mg or higher; 35 million of these people have total cholesterol levels above 240 mg/dL, placing them at high risk for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. A total cholesterol level of 240 or greater is considered too high. A total cholesterol of 260 places you in the danger zone, but how great of a danger depends on your individual cholesterol levels as well.
Total Cholesterol Defined
Total cholesterol is the measurement of all fats in your bloodstream. A total cholesterol of 240 increases your risk of heart disease by twice the amount of a person with a healthy level, so if your level is 260 it poses a greater danger, but your doctor considers the reason for your elevated total cholesterol. If it is because of high LDL, or bad cholesterol, the risk for heart disease is likely. However, your HDL, or good cholesterol, can cause an increase in your total cholesterol, as HDL cholesterol must be high to prevent heart disease. If high HDL levels are the reason behind high total cholesterol, your doctor typically will not be concerned because HDL helps clears excess LDL from your body, explains FamilyDoctor.org.
Should LDL cholesterol be the reason for high levels of total cholesterol, changing your eating habits can lower both. Reduce your consumption of saturated fats, including red meat, eggs, whole-fat dairy, vegetable oil, butter and organ meats. Cleveland Clinic states that no more than 7 percent of your total calories should come from saturated fats. Choose skinless poultry, fish, non-fat dairy and olive oil. Eliminate trans fats, which are found in commercially baked goods such as cookies, cakes and snack crackers. Soluble fiber can reduce your LDL by 1 percent for every 1 to 2 g you eat, according to Cleveland Clinic. Sources include oats, fruits, vegetables, lentils and legumes.
Lifestyle changes are another way to lower both your LDL and total cholesterol. Stop smoking to prevent damage to your arteries. Smoking expedites hardening of the arteries, a condition high cholesterol already contributes to. Speak to your doctor about smoking cessation products or support groups to make your journey easier. Lose excess pounds as well, since obesity and high cholesterol go hand in hand. The more weight you lose, the lower your cholesterol could fall. Speak to a registered dietitian or ask your physician for help if you have a difficult time devising a healthy eating plan on your own. Increasing your activity is perhaps the most important aspect when trying to improve cholesterol levels. A mere 30 minutes each day of walking, biking, hiking or swimming can make a large difference over time.
High total cholesterol levels usually require regular monitoring through cholesterol blood tests known as lipid profiles, or lipid panels. Your doctor will determine how often this testing is necessary; in most cases it is based on how effective your treatment plan is. The goal is to reduce your risk of heart disease as much as possible, as soon as possible.