Cholesterol, a silent assassin

Cholesterol is a silent assassin that creeps up on you. Know why and when it becomes a problem

Unlike diabetes and hypertension, there are no apparent symptoms to an imbalance in cholesterol, which kills millions worldwide. You would only detect it when advised a blood test. If it measures more than 200 mg/dl in your blood serum, press the panic button now. Ignoring high cholesterol for long can silently eat into the number of years of your life.

It's got a bad name
Cholesterol is, basically, the fat (lipid), which exists in the outer layer of every cell in your body. Without it, we would die. It performs many important functions. It builds and maintains the outer layer of cell membranes. It is also involved in the production of sex hormones (androgens and estrogens) and is essential for the production of hormones released by the adrenal glands. It helps in the production of bile and is important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.

When it gets ugly
It turns from friend to enemy when the blood level of cholesterol goes up. Cardiologist Dr Vijay Bang says, "A person suffering from high cholesterol may be prone to grievous health risks such as narrowing of the arteries, stroke, heart attacks, angina and other cardiovascular diseases."

According to public health nutritionist Neha Gehi, the liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day, equivalent to a dozen eggs with yolk. We consume about 150 to 200 milligrams through the foods we eat. "The problem begins only when the blood serum has more than 200 milligrams dl," she says.

The good and the bad
As cholesterol can't travel by itself through the bloodstream, it has to combine with certain proteins. These proteins pick up the cholesterol and transport it to different parts of the body.

"The cholesterol and protein form a lipoprotein together. The two most important types of lipoproteins are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as good cholesterol and bad cholesterol respectively," says Bang. HDL takes the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver. In the liver, it is either broken down or expelled from the body as waste. On the other hand, LDL does the opposite, by taking cholesterol from the liver to the cells. If it goes above 130 mg/dl it adds fat to the cells and tends to clog the blood vessels by keeping blood from flowing through the body the way it should. Over time, the condition may block blood flow to other vital organs, including the kidneys and intestines.

Excess weight leads to high cholesterol levels. The problem can also be genetic. If heart diseases run in your family, you are at a higher risk. And this risk increases as you get older.

Keep a tab
The level of cholesterol can be controlled by adopting these simple steps in our lifestyle. Here is how:

- To start with, avoid cholesterol-containing food such as butter, cheese, egg yolk, and meat organs (kidney, liver etc)

- Drink only low-tone milk

- Stay away from products that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. These include commercially-prepared baked goods

- If you eat meat, consume lean meats and skinless poultry. In sea food, avoid lobster, shrimp and crab

- Make sure you trim off all noticeable fat before cooking.

- Switch to vegetarian high-fibre and highprotein rich diet including legumes, beans, peas, nuts, or other soy products

- If you eat eggs, avoid the yolk. Stick to egg whites only

- Avoid deep fried items when you feel the urge to snack. Instead, have raw veggies, whole-grains, plain unsalted popcorn or yogurt.

- Indulge in some or the other form of physical activity as exercising strengthens the heart, lowers cholesterol, and helps to lose excess weight

- Quitting alcohol and smoke can help decrease the risk of heart disease.

- If your cholesterol is really high, then you need to consult a doctor and take medication as prescribed

Parag Chhapekar, Media Professional, 42
Of late, I had started feeling tired frequently. Last month, I took a Lipid profile test and discovered that I was suffering from high-cholesterol. I panicked. I am taking medication as prescribed and have made many changes in my diet. For one, I completely shun red meat. I eat more fruit, vegetables, chicken and fish. Potato chips were my weakness. Now, when I get the craving, I eat nuts such as almonds and walnuts. For breakfast, I used to eat omelettes and parathas. Now, I have oats or bajra and jowar roti with a cup of tea. From smoking 40-50 cigarettes a day, I have reduced the number to two. I am confident I will give smoking up altogether soon. I have started going for morning walks. The doctor said that if I continue the medication, watch my diet and exercise, my cholesterol will be under control within three months.

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