A healthy heart in the month of love

With Valentines day around the corner, all the focus is on hearts. When we speak about heart health, the word cholesterol is always at the forefront of the conversation. This article will equip you with a better understanding on cholesterol and how to keep your heart healthy with a different kind of L.O.V.E.

Cholesterol has developed a bad reputation with people always thinking that it is mostly a bad part of our bodies. We have all heard the terms “good” and “bad” cholesterol. However, many of us don’t know what these terms mean or the vital role they play in the functioning in our bodies.

Function of Cholesterol:

Cholesterol is produced by the liver and by most of our body’s cells. It does not dissolve in water so its main purpose is to waterproof our cells and hold them together. It is found in the following body functions and plays a vital role in:

  • The brain and nervous system for the creation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine and their ability to attach to receptors.
  • Producing hormones, like Estrogen, testosterone and all other hormones necessary for our bodies to function.
  • In Corticosteroids, the hormones that protect the body from stress and protect the functioning of the immune system.
  • The production of vitamin D – low levels of which have been linked to depression and heart disease.
  • Makes up bile salts which are necessary for the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
  • As part of Intestinal wall to protect the body from inflammation and exaggerated immune response.

The “Good” and “Bad” Cholesterol:

The “good” cholesterol refers to High density lipoproteins (HDL’s) and the “bad” to low density lipoproteins (LDL’s). They are compounds made up of a combination of fats and protein. HDL’s main function is to transport and remove fat from the body by binding with it in the bloodstream and carrying it back to the liver for disposal. LDL’s are mostly involved in cell damage and tissue repair. When damage and inflammation occur in blood vessels, LDL cholesterol rushes to the site to make repairs and protect cell membranes. LDL is termed “bad” cholesterol as it is linked to the development of plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis, in our veins and arteries.  This can lead to heart disease. Statins, medication used to lower the amount of LDL in the body, are routinely prescribed to people with high levels in order to bring them down and prevent cardiovascular disease.

The “ugly” Cholesterol:

Although high LDL cholesterol is know as a cause of coronary heart disease, evidence suggests that an elevated triglyceride level is also an important risk factor. Until recently, researchers believed that high triglyceride levels were not as significant as cholesterol at predicting plaque buildup and heart disease. However, this perspective has changed. Most experts now consider triglycerides a third important risk factor for plaque build up in the arteries. Hence the term “ugly” cholesterol. Triglycerides are lipids that store energy as, any excess calories are converted into triglycerides and stored in your fat cells. Then your hormones release triglycerides for energy in between meals. This cycle only becomes problematic when you eat more calories than you burn, which leads to high triglycerides, also called hypertriglyceridemia.

In studies where LDL cholesterol levels were significantly reduced with the use of statins, many patients still had elevated triglyceride levels. This still put them at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This proves that high triglycerides play a significant role.

Causes of High Triglycerides

High triglycerides may be caused by the following conditions:
• Obesity
• eating excess calories
• lack of exercise
• type 2 diabetes
• hypothyroidism
• kidney disease
• excessive alcohol consumption
• smoking
• medication side effects
Research published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology reviewed data on the associations of triglyceride, HDL and LDL cholesterol with coronary artery disease risk factors. They found that among men or women with low HDL cholesterol and high triglyceride levels, smoking, diabetes, low activity, hypertension and obesity were much more prevalent.

Trans fats – the main cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease:

New research is proving that the cholesterol in foods like eggs, dairy and red meat have a very small effect in elevating your cholesterol levels. However, refined and hydrogenated oils, processed foods and meat products, which are sources of trans fat, are more to blame. They raise LDL cholesterol levels, lower HDL cholesterol levels. Therefore, increasing the risk of heart disease, strokes and the risk of diabetes. Research from Harvard Medical School that found that trans fatty acid consumption from hydrogenated oils “adversely affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors and contributes significantly to increased risk of coronary heart disease events.” For every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.

Diet for good cholesterol

Studies have shown that the best diet to follow that is free from Trans fats and promotes healthy cholesterol levels is a Mediterranean diet. This diet has vegetables and fruits as the main focus.  In addition, whole grains and legumes all providing great sources of fibre. It incorporates healthy fats like nuts and olive oil. Protein comes from lean sources with a focus on fresh fish as a great source of Omega 3’s. It’s lower in red meat and other saturated fats and it contains few processed foods or refined sugars.

So this Valentines day, try to fill your heart with a healthy kind of love by following these easy steps:

Limit the intake of trans fats from processed foods, fried foods and baked goods
Omega 3 from dark, oily fish or supplements are very important
Variety of  fresh vegetables at every meal for added fiber and nutrients
Exercise daily as it is key to a healthy cardiovascular system

For more guidance on how to follow a Mediterranean diet, get in touch with one of our dietitians who would be able to guide you.