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Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the lipids in our body. It is important, as it forms cell membranes, certain hormones, and is required for other functions in the body. However, when it exceeds the recommended levels, a medical condition, hypercholesterolemia develops, which triggers cardiovascular diseases.

To assess the levels of cholesterol in the blood, we often see doctors referring to amounts of HDL and LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides in blood. It does not dissolve in the blood. It is carried in the blood attached to certain proteins to form the High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is referred to as the 'good' cholesterol, whereas LDL is called the 'bad' cholesterol. This is because, HDL reduces the chances of cholesterol being deposited on blood vessels, whereas LDL does just the opposite, thereby raising the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

What Increases Cholesterol Levels

Eating Habits
Saturated fatty acids and trans-fatty acids are the main culprits of raising the level of 'bad' cholesterol in our body. Animal meat and products, including, beef, pork, whole milk, egg yolk, etc., are rich sources of saturated fatty acids, whereas processed and fried foods contain high levels of trans-fatty acids. Eating these foods increases our cholesterol levels, way beyond the normal levels. Hence, avoiding these food items, and including more fruits and vegetables in our diet can help us keep the blood cholesterol levels under control.

Physical Inactivity
Regular exercise is beneficial in maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol in the blood. Not only does it strengthen one's muscles, and increase stamina, but it also reduces the amount of LDL and increases the amount of HDL in our body.

Body Weight
Excess weight tends to increase the amount of LDL and triglycerides in the body. If the body gets higher supply of calories than those actually used, the excess calories get stored as fats (triglycerides) in the cells. Obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, which may lead to heart diseases. Overweight people do not have enough amount of HDL in their blood. Weight loss helps in increasing the levels of HDL, and reducing the triglycerides in the body.

Genetic Factors
Genes play a key role in maintaining the levels of cholesterol by deciding how fast LDL is made and processed out from blood. Sometimes, this condition runs in families. Such a condition is known as 'familial hypercholesterolemia'. People suffering from this condition, are more likely to react to lifestyle factors like, poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. Also, people, who have a family history of diabetes tend to have high levels of triglycerides that push the cholesterol levels up in the blood.

Age
As we age, the ability of our body, to naturally maintain the correct levels of cholesterol diminishes. This makes us more susceptible to an imbalance of cholesterol levels in the blood. Hence, leading a healthy life is advisable, so that even when one ages, the body system remains strong enough to maintain HDL to the optimum level.

Gender
Men are found to be more predisposed to developing higher levels of cholesterol than women. This is because, the hormones in women tend to boost the HDL levels in the blood. However, levels of HDL decreases in women after menopause. Taking estrogen helps women to keep their cholesterol levels in check.

Stress
It has been observed that stress and cholesterol levels are closely related to each other. A possible reason behind this relation might be that, stress tends to affect our lifestyle in a negative way. Many of us tend to binge on fatty foods, and take up smoking and drinking to relieve mental stress. All this leads to increased LDL in the blood, which makes us susceptible to other heart diseases.

Smoking
Smoking lowers the levels of HDL, and increases the risk of blood clot. It makes the smoker more susceptible to other heart and lung diseases as well. For people, who have a genetic disposition for suffering from heart diseases, smoking provides the congenial environment for those diseases to develop.

Alcohol Consumption
Moderate consumption of alcohol (1-2 drinks daily) increases the levels of HDL. However, it does not lower the amount of LDL. Although, drinking in moderation is considered to prevent heart diseases, no consensus has been reached by the medical fraternity regarding this belief. In fact, drinking too much alcohol raises triglyceride levels, and increases blood pressure.

Just as vitamins and minerals are important to strengthen our immune system, so are fats and carbohydrates. So, it is important that we include different types of foods in our diet. However, whatever we do or eat, should be in moderation, as an excess of anything upsets the balance of nutrients, physical activity, and rest required by our body.