“Well I’ll have to take another Lipitor pill after eating this monster of a burger,” said one of our fellow tailgaters. Cholesterol-lowering medications are a common routine for many Americans today. Some of the most common cholesterol-lowering medications include atorvastatin (aka Lipitor), lovastatin, pravastain and simvastatin. These medications are known as “statins” and help to reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad type) and triglycerides (fat in the blood) and to raise the good HDL cholesterol. At face value, these sound like wonder drugs that everyone should partake in. The only problem is many people suffer side effects. A very common side effect that I’ve seen many of my patients complain of is muscle cramps and pain. Statins work within the liver to reduce cholesterol levels but can also cause liver damage. Often, the doctor will order a blood panel every six months to monitor liver function.
Cholesterol often gets a bad rap but it’s a critical element in the proper functioning of our bodies. Cholesterol is used to create hormones and forms the cell structure of every single cell. It is also used by the liver to create bile which aids in fat digestion. About 75% of cholesterol is created in the liver and 25% comes from the diet. For some people, high cholesterol can be genetic but I firmly believe that diet is a bigger factor than most give credit. I’m happy to report that after only four months on a plant-based diet my cholesterol has dropped by nearly 20 points.
LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins. These are known as “bad cholesterol” as these proteins carry cholesterol and drop it off in the arteries. Saturated and trans fats in the diet raise LDL. Most physicians like to see this LDL <100 but ideally, try to aim for <70. HDL is high-density lipoproteins and these little gems work to remove cholesterol. Try and keep your HDL >40. Weight loss, smoking cessation and a high fiber diet help to increase HDL. Aerobic exercise can also increase your HDL so get moving! As I mentioned before, triglycerides are fats in the blood and are stored within fat cells. Refined carbohydrates (such as white, refined bread) and alcohol raise triglyceride levels. Aim to keep your triglycerides well below 150.
When a person has high LDL cholesterol they are at elevated risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke as excess plaque begins to build up in the arteries. When these plaques become agitated by forceful blood flow (aka hypertension), they can break open and activate the body’s clotting system. When a clot forms and occludes a major vessel in the heart, a heart attack occurs. When this occurs in the brain, an embolic stroke occurs.
Try to eliminate or greatly reduce your consumption of animal products as they are your dietary source for cholesterol and saturated fats. Plant-based foods are cholesterol free and provide fiber to remove excess cholesterol from your body. I start my mornings with a big bowl of steaming oatmeal topped with cinnamon, sliced almonds, raisins and a splash of almond milk. High fiber foods such as oatmeal bind with cholesterol and take it out of the body. What a way to start the day!