But high cholesterol can have detrimental effects. When LDL—or “bad” cholesterol—builds up in your arteries, it causes them to narrow and contributes to an increased risk of coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
The following are some of the main causes of high cholesterol:
There are some things you can control that have an effect on your cholesterol levels. If you eat too much saturated fat, trans fats and carbohydrates, you’re more likely to have elevated levels. Saturated fats are found in meats, full-fat dairy products, and fried and processed foods. Trans fat is found in fried foods and packaged baked goods like cookies and chips. They not only raise your LDL levels, they also lower your levels of good cholesterol (HDL).
Carbohydrates are broken down to simple sugars, mainly glucose and fructose. As those sugars are metabolized, a molecule called acetyl coenzyme A is produced. This either uses the carbohydrates as energy or stores them as lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides. A diet high in carbohydrates and added sugars produces more acetyl coenzyme A, which elevates cholesterol and triglycerides.
A healthy diet is one that is low in carbohydrates, trans fats and saturated fats, while high in vegetables, lean meats, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
Weight and exercise
Your lifestyle is another factor. If you’re overweight, your LDL levels tend to be higher, and your HDL levels are more likely to be lower. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, which will help your cholesterol levels.
Even if you’re not overweight, getting 30-40 minutes of exercise at least three times a week can help lower LDL and raise HDL.
Drinking excessively and smoking
Besides lack of exercise, other habits can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol. If you smoke, it can lower your HDL cholesterol levels and cause LDL to rise. Drinking a lot of alcohol can increase your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Other than diet and lifestyle, there are certain causes of high cholesterol that are out of your hands. A family history of early heart disease or stroke also means you’re more likely to have high cholesterol levels.
Age, Gender, and Ethnicity
Everyone’s cholesterol levels tend to rise as they age. Usually this starts to happen after age 20. Men usually have lower levels of HDL when compared to women (due to their testosterone levels), although women’s LDL levels rise more quickly than men’s. Women usually have lower LDL levels than men when they’re younger than age 55, but the reverse is true after age 55.
People who are of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi descent are more likely to have high cholesterol than people of other ethnic backgrounds.
Certain illnesses can affect cholesterol levels as well. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome, an underactive thyroid gland, liver disease, or chronic kidney disease, you are more likely to have elevated cholesterol numbers.
Some medicines can cause cholesterol to rise as well. These include beta blockers and estrogen, which can raise your triglyceride levels and lower your HDL.
Talk with your doctor if you have some of these risk factors for high cholesterol but haven’t yet been diagnosed. Often you’ll have no symptoms, but your doctor can tell you how often your cholesterol levels should be tested. If you’ve already been told you have high cholesterol, develop a plan with your doctor to help reduce the causes that are within your control.