Health Topics

Hyperlipidemia (High Blood Cholesterol)

Overview

Cholesterol is one type of fat or lipid. This waxy white substance, contrary to its bad press, is an essential element for our health. Cholesterol has no energy value, but serves as a building block for many important compounds such as vitamin D, digestive bile, various sex hormones, and is a component of the outer membranes of all body cells. Cholesterol comes from animal food sources in our diet but our body is also capable of making a certain amount of cholesterol.

Any excess cholesterol that is not used by the body can negatively affect our arteries over time. This fatty material begins to adhere as plaque to the walls of the arteries. Like badly rusted plumbing pipes, arteries can become dangerously clogged with plaque, and then blood has a harder time flowing.

High cholesterol increases risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. These risk factors include an improper diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol, obesity, and inactivity. Medical conditions such as diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, liver disease, alcoholism, as well as certain medications, can cause elevated lipid levels. Also, a family history of high cholesterol may mean that a person is genetically at risk for high lipids.

In general, there are two broad types of cholesterol that can be measured:

  1. LDL or the "bad" cholesterol is the fraction of the total cholesterol that forms the plaque that can clog the arteries. Optimal LDL level is less than 130mg per dL, or less than 100 per dL in high risk individuals.
  2. HDL or the "good" cholesterol keeps cholesterol from building up in our arteries. Optimal HDL level is greater than 40 mg per dL in men and greater than 50 mg per dL in women.

Signs & Symptoms

There are usually no symptoms in the early years. Uncommonly, high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia) can manifest with yellowish nodules of fat in the skin beneath eyes, elbows and knees, and in tendons; sometimes a large spleen and liver occur, or whitish rings around the eye's iris occur. Longstanding elevated cholesterol is typically associated with cardiovascular disease and therefore, can lead to heart attack, stroke and/or peripheral vascular disease.

Prevention

Plan a diet which is low in cholesterol and saturated fats. Low in cholesterol foods include:

  • Eat poultry without the skin, fish, vegetables, most fruits, whole grains, and skim milk.
  • Reduce sugar intake
  • Eat foods high in soluble fiber
  • Eat more cold water fish and soy products
  • Avoid saturated fats and trans-fats
  • Eat polyunsaturated fats in moderation
  • Avoid or limit the frequency of foods which are high cholesterol such as eggs (yolks), red meats, organ meats (e.g. liver & heart), buttter and other whole milk dairy products.
  • If you smoke, stop and if you drink alcohol, drink in moderation
  • Increase aerobic exercise since it raises the HDL or "good" cholesterol

Treatment

If lipid levels are not improved with lifestyle modifications including diet and exercise, then medication management may be appropriate. Medication is available that blocks liver synthesis of cholesterol and triglycerides (another lipid) as well as other medications that inhibit intestinal absorption of cholesterol and triglycerides.

How We Can Help

  • If you would like to be seen by our medical staff, please contact our Appointment Desk to schedule an appointment.
  • Also, our Advice Nurse service is free for all UC Davis students to discuss health concerns and the need for medical care.
  • Appointments with the registered dietitian are also available through a referral by our medical staff to discuss specific dietary concerns such as ways to decrease dietary saturated fats.

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