Over 86 million American adults have high cholesterol. Of those, only about half are doing something about it. That's a problem because high blood cholesterol levels can contribute to clogged arteries, which increase your risk of cardiac events like a heart attack and stroke.
But just because you have high cholesterol doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do about it. By adhering to the following strategies, you can start to lower your cholesterol in a matter of weeks. And since September is National Cholesterol Education Month, there’s no better time to take a closer look at cholesterol and to highlight effective ways to keep yours in check.
What Is Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like molecule found in every one of your body’s cells. It’s necessary for the production of hormones, vitamin D, and digestive chemicals. Your body produces all the cholesterol it needs. But cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as eggs, butter, meat, and cheese.
There are two main kinds of cholesterol:
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL). Referred to as “good” cholesterol, HDL carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver for removal.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Known as “bad” cholesterol, high LDL levels can lead to the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
Why Cholesterol Matters
If you have too much cholesterol flowing through your arteries, it can combine with fats, calcium, and other substances in the blood to form plaque. Plaque is dangerous because it sticks to the arterial walls, causing them to narrow and stiffen, which can cause a condition called atherosclerosis2. Over time, this buildup can constrict blood flow, putting you at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
Do You Have High Cholesterol?
Unfortunately, high cholesterol typically doesn’t have any symptoms. The only way to know if your levels are too high is through a blood test called a lipid panel ordered by your doctor. The test measures how much cholesterol is circulating in your blood. If your total cholesterol comes in over 200 mg/dL, then you have high cholesterol. If it’s above 240 mg/dL, then you’re at serious risk for developing coronary heart disease.3 Your LDL matters, too. Levels between 130 mg/dL and 159 mg/dL are a sign that you have borderline high levels of this harmful form of cholesterol. Anything over 160 mg/dL can radically elevate your risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
The test also measures your triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are another type of fat in the blood. While triglycerides aren’t part of the plaque that builds up in your arteries, high levels can help facilitate atherosclerosis and increase your risk of heart disease.
What Can You Do About High Cholesterol?
Bringing your cholesterol down may seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are a number of simple things you can start doing to bring your cholesterol levels into a healthier range and reduce your risk for a cardiovascular event. The best part is that some of these changes can show immediate benefit to your cholesterol readings.
Clean Up Your Diet
Changing your cholesterol profile starts with changing the way you eat.
Eat the right fats. Not all fats are bad for you. Some fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. But in order to see a drop in cholesterol, you have to watch out for certain fats like saturated fat, which is found primarily in red meat and full-fat dairy products, and trans-fat, which is found in fried foods and commercial baked goods. Decreasing your consumption of these types of foods can help reduce your LDL cholesterol.4 A good place to start is by switching out your butter or margarine for a high-quality extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. Then, try making an omega-3-rich salmon and vegetable dish at least once or twice a week.
Add fiber. Data suggest that an uptick in dietary fiber may lead to a downturn in LDL cholesterol—and diminish the risk of coronary heart disease.5 Soluble fiber, which isn’t absorbed in the intestine, binds to cholesterol and removes it from the body. According to the National Lipid Association, eating 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber per day can help lower total and LDL cholesterol by 5 to 11 points. Foods high in fiber include whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. You can get even more soluble fiber with a supplement that contains psyllium, betaglucan, pectin, or guar gum.
Avoid sugar. Sugar-sweetened beverages aren’t doing your cholesterol heath any favors. Unfortunately, sodas, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks are America’s favorite source of added sugars. A report in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that regular consumption of these sugary beverages is linked to lower levels of good HDL cholesterol and higher levels of triglycerides in middle aged and older adults.6
Adjust Your Lifestyle
Along with tweaking your diet, shifting your daily habits can have a big impact on your cholesterol levels.
Exercise. Regular physical activity is a surefire way reduce your cholesterol levels.7 Based on the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need about 20 to 30 minutes of exercise every day, with 2 days of muscle strengthening activity every week. Physical activity can be anything: going for a swim, a hike, a jog—whatever gets you moving. Think you’re too old to benefit? Think again. A study of elderly individuals showed a significant decrease in their cholesterol and blood pressure levels after engaging in regular exercise.8
Quit smoking. Cigarette smoke, whether first- or secondhand, can wreak havoc on your health—your cholesterol levels included. The American Heart Association says that the carbon monoxide present in cigarette smoke increases the amount of cholesterol deposited in the inner lining of the arteries. But dropping the habit can improve your cholesterol health quickly. In fact, your HDL levels can rapidly rise in less than three weeks.9
Choose a Supplement
Give your arteries a little assistance with a supplement specifically targeted to lower cholesterol levels.
Aged garlic extract (AGE). AGE is well known for its cardiovascular benefits. Research shows that it reduces arterial stiffness, elevated cholesterol levels, and blood “stickiness,” as well as blood pressure. AGE is so effective at lowering BP that a meta-analysis of 12 trials confirmed that garlic supplements can cut the risk of a cardiovascular event by up to 40 percent—which is just as effective as standard anti-hypertensive medications.13 And another study highlighted clinical research showing that AGE lowered total cholesterol by 7 percent and LDL cholesterol by 10 percent in a group of men with high cholesterol levels.14
Lecithin. Every one of your body’s cells needs lecithin. Research suggests that taking soy lecithin daily may be used as a supplemental treatment for high cholesterol. Even better, soy lecithin was shown to contribute to a significant reduction in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol concentrations in just the first month of treatment.10
Phytosterols. These are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in all plant foods. Because they are structurally similar to cholesterol, phytosterols compete with your body’s cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system. As a result, cholesterol absorption is blocked, and levels drop. Studies suggest that phytosterols can significantly reduce concentrations of LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides in the blood.11
Omega-3s. It’s not only smart to get plenty of omega-3s in your diet, it’s also smart to fortify your intake with a high-quality supplement. Evidence suggests that omega-3 supplementation can help increase good HDL cholesterol and reduce harmful blood triglycerides levels.12
There’s no time like the present to take steps to reduce your total and LDL cholesterol—whether it’s National Cholesterol Education Month or not. Incorporate these proven strategies into your lifestyle today and you’ll start to see benefits sooner than you might think.
- Wall HK. Vital Signs: prevalence of key cardiovascular disease risk factors for Million Hearts 2022—United States, 2011–2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2018;67(35):983–91.
- Rafieian-Kopaei M. Atherosclerosis: process, indicators, risk factors and new hopes. Int J Prev Med. 2014;5(8):927–46.
- Lakhan K. Review on lipid profile of cholesterol. World Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. 2022;11(10):682–95.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your guide to lowering your cholesterol with TLC. Bethesda, MD: US Department of Health and Human Service. 2005.
- Bazzano LA. Effects of soluble dietary fiber on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and coronary heart disease risk. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2008;10:473–7.
- Haslam DE. Beverage Consumption and Longitudinal Changes in Lipoprotein Concentrations and Incident Dyslipidemia in US Adults: The Framingham Heart Study. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2020;9:e014083.
- Mann S. Differential effects of aerobic exercise, resistance training and combined exercise modalities on cholesterol and the lipid profile: review, synthesis and recommendations. Sports Med. 2014;44(2):211–21.
- Sunita S. Elderly Exercise’s Impact on Cholesterol and Blood Pressure. Star Shine Medical Journal. 2021;1(1):44–8.
- Forey BA. The effect of quitting smoking on HDL-cholesterol – a review based on within-subject changes. Biomark Res. 2013;1(1):26.
- Mourad AM. Influence of soy lecithin administration on hypercholesterolemia. Cholesterol. 2010;2010:824813.
- Li X. The Bioavailability and Biological Activities of Phytosterols as Modulators of Cholesterol Metabolism. Molecules. 2022; 27(2):523.
- Yanai H. An Improvement of Cardiovascular Risk Factors by Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. J Clin Med Res. 2018;10(4):281–9.
- Ried K. Garlic lowers blood pressure in hypertensive subjects, improves arterial stiffness and gut microbiota: A review and meta-analysis. Exp Ther Med. 2020;19(2):1472–8.
- Yeh YY. Cholesterol-lowering effect of garlic extracts and organosulfur compounds: human and animal studies. J Nutr. 2001;131(3s):989S-93S.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.