Cholesterol isn’t all bad.
Our bodies need cholesterol to make cell walls and hormones and perform other key functions.
However, too much cholesterol increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease.
If you have high cholesterol, you can take action to reduce your levels and improve your heart health.
While you cannot lower high cholesterol levels overnight, making changes to live a healthy lifestyle can make significant improvements over time.
In this article, I’ll explain what high cholesterol is, how long it takes to lower cholesterol, various ways to lower cholesterol levels, and when to see a doctor about high cholesterol.
No matter how long it may take, managing high cholesterol is worth it for the sake of your heart.
What Is High Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver.
Our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need.
But our diets are another source of cholesterol.
In particular, animal foods contain cholesterol, and foods high in saturated and trans fat cause the liver to produce more cholesterol.
Cholesterol levels are checked through a simple blood test.
This test typically measures:
- HDL cholesterol: High-density lipoproteins (often considered “good” cholesterol) carry cholesterol back to the liver to be flushed out of the body.
- LDL cholesterol: Low-density lipoproteins (also known as “bad” cholesterol) can cause cholesterol to build up and clog the arteries.
- Total cholesterol: The combined amount of HDL, LDL, and other types of cholesterol in your blood.
For adults 20 and older, cholesterol is considered “high” if someone has:
- Total cholesterol of 240 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol of 160 mg/DL or higher
Timeline for Lowering Cholesterol
Lowering cholesterol can take time, but it’s worth it.
Whether using medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of the two, many people see improvement in their cholesterol levels within a few weeks.
Others experience notable changes after a few months.
That’s why it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, ignore quick fixes, and make changes you can live with long term: In order to lower high cholesterol and improve heart health for good, you need to create new habits.
How to Lower Cholesterol
A number of lifestyle changes can help reduce cholesterol and support heart and overall health.
Talk to your healthcare provider about the following ways to help manage cholesterol levels.
Eat a healthy diet
You don’t have to completely give up the foods you love in order to benefit your heart.
The key is to focus on consuming more beneficial foods and less not-so-healthy ones. Specifically:
- Increase your intake of fiber: Found in plant foods, fiber reduces total and LDL cholesterol, although it’s unclear exactly why this is. Soluble fiber (found in oatmeal, beans, legumes, and some vegetables and fruit) is most beneficial.
- Reduce how much saturated and trans fats you eat: Eating too many of these fats increases blood cholesterol levels. Limit (or eliminate) your consumption of red meat, processed meats (like bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meat), poultry skin, full-fat dairy, fried foods, and packaged foods made with hydrogenated oils, palm oil, and coconut oil.
- Favored unsaturated fats: When eaten in place of saturated fats, healthy fats from foods like avocado, olives and olive oil, nuts, and seeds help reduce LDL.
- Add more omega-3 fatty acids: These compounds hinder the production of harmful very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, increase HDL, and lower triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood). Sources of omega 3s include fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and tuna) as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and fortified foods.
- Fill up with vegetables and fruit: The more of these foods that you eat, the lower your LDL, research suggests.
Increase physical activity
Exercise increases HDL cholesterol levels, which in turn helps decrease LDL by carrying it away from the arteries to be removed from the body.
Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, biking slower than 10 miles per hour, and playing doubles tennis) and resistance training (lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises) both have benefits.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and two days of resistance training per week.
If that seems like a lot, start with 10 minutes a day and gradually increase your activity.
You can also divide your exercise into several short bouts throughout the day, such as 10-, 15-, or 20-minute workouts.
Maintain a healthy weight
Although high cholesterol can affect people of any weight, excess pounds can be a risk factor.
A balanced diet and increased physical activity may help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Giving up the habit increases HDL cholesterol levels in less than three weeks.
In addition to lifestyle changes, medications such as statins, cholesterol absorption inhibitors, bile-acid-binding resins, and PCSK9 inhibitors may be necessary to reduce high cholesterol to a healthy level.
Discuss your options with your doctor.
When to See a Doctor
High cholesterol has no symptoms; it can only be detected with a simple blood test.
That’s why it’s important to see a healthcare provider and have your cholesterol checked every five years if you are 20 or older, or more frequently if you have other risk factors.
If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan, including how often you should come in for checkups.
However, if anything in your lifestyle or medical history changes, or if you feel the plan is no longer working, see them as soon as possible so they can help you make adjustments.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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The Effect of Alcohol on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Is There New Information? (2020).
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How and When to Have Your Cholesterol Checked. (2021).
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