Lowering High Cholesterol

I have high cholesterol. I'm not talking border-line high risk levels. I'm talking scary high levels. The kind you'd expect from someone who's 500 pounds and eats hot dogs and potato chips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

Except I'm not overweight, and I don't eat a high fat diet. In fact, when I mention my cholesterol levels to others (somehow it tends to be a topic of conversation with those of us slipping into middle-age), they gape, sputtering, "But you're thin!"

Ah, yes. Thanks for the compliment, and, by the way, sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary.

My levels generally hover around the 380's for total cholesterol. And in case you're a cholesterol novice, the American Heart Association recommends total cholesterol level to be below 200 mg/dL, stating this means the likelihood of developing heart disease is low, as long as other risk factors aren't in place, such as high blood pressure. But that's another blog article for another time.

As you can see, my risk level for heart disease is high according to the AHA. Yet I'm not 100% convinced cholesterol is the evil weapon of death doctors make it out to be.

Still, I'm always trying to lower it.

First, let me explain what makes up the total cholesterol numbers. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. The American Heart Association mentions that being under 100mg/dL is "optimal." LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol. Lipoproteins are made of fat and protein (Medline Plus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003495.htm). Too much LDL being carried through the arteries can clog them.

HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It's also called "good" cholesterol because it offers protection from heart disease. There are a number of theories about how this works, one being that it carries LDL from the body. However, this is simply a theory, there may be much more to it than that.

Cholesterol tests can also determine triglyceride levels, which are leftover calories stored in fat cells for later use. The American Heart Association states that under 150 mg/dL is a normal level.

In my studies on myself, when I avoid all meat (with the exception of fish), I generally lower my cholesterol level by 70 mg/dL. In 2002, after being a fish-eating vegetarian for several months, my total cholesterol level dropped to 301 mg/dL.

When I added a statin to my daily regimen, I actually was able to get my level down to 199 mg/dL.

I went back to eating meat when trying to conceive my first child, and remained that way for years (until recently). I also had to stop taking the statin. My levels went up again.

Last year, after having two children and no longer nursing the second one, I went back to check my levels. I'd not eaten red meat in years, and only consumed small amounts of turkey, pork and chicken. My levels: 337 mg/dL total. LDL: 272 mg/dL. HDL: 52. Triglycerides: 58.

I wanted to try Niacin before going back to a statin again.

Niacin is purported to raise one's HDL (considered the "good" cholesterol in your body) by 15-35%, according to the Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/niacin/cl00036). Niacin is one of the B vitamins, used to convert carbohydrates into energy.

I'm going to divulge my cholesterol numbers during this trial period. While on 500 mg. a day of Niacin, my total cholesterol dropped to 308. LDL: 239 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. While on 1000 mg. of Niacin, it went down a teensy bit more. Total: 293 mg/dL. LDL: 226 mg/dL. HDL: 55 mg/dL.

The totals weren't low enough to please my doctor, but boy! I was thrilled. Under 300? Great.

My doctor placed me on a statin, and I went off of the Niacin. Total cholesterol on 20 mg. of a stain: 240. LDL: 179 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 65 mg/dL. Cholesterol on 40 mg: 211 mg/dL. LDL: 147 mg/dL. HDL: 49 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 73 mg/dL.

Now I am going back to being a fish eating vegetarian, taking a statin, and exercising regularly. I am also trying to quit eating foods that contain white flour (more on the effects of bleached flour on our health in another post), and trying to consume less sugar. In a few months, I will know how effective all this is in lowering my cholesterol, and I will post the findings here. But this is what I hypothesize:

1) Niacin helps raise HDL cholesterol levels, but not enough to make a significant difference in my numbers.

2) Niacin helps lower LDL levels, but not enough for my levels to be where the American Heart Association feels they should be for better heart health.

3) Becoming a pesce-vegetarian (fish and dairy eating) lowers my numbers significantly.

4) Statins are an effective means for lowering cholesterol.

5) Statins alone will not bring my cholesterol down to a level that satisfies the American Heart Association's recommendations.

My biggest questions are: why do some people naturally produce an overabundance of cholesterol, and others don't? Why do some people with high cholesterol live long lives if it's such a terrible killer? Are cholesterol lowering drugs more hype than help? Another column, another day, but I will do my best to answer these questions and others like them.

For an interactive chart sent to me by the marketing manager of Healthline (which is very interesting to read, by the way) check out: http://www.healthline.com/health/cholesterol/effects-on-body


  1. I've heard garlic helps lower cholesterol. Is this true? Have you tried it? (pill form)

  2. I'm a fan of garlic, I cook with it all the time. Although I feel garlic has many wonderful properties for good health, I can't seem to find substantial evidence proving it can lower cholesterol. Some studies say yes, it combats high cholesterol! Some say that's a bunch of cow poop. But it may depend on the person. For example, Niacin didn't raise my HDL much, but for some people, it does. I'd love to know if there are genetic dispositions for these discrepancies.

  3. I've been an ovo-lacto-pescatarian for a long time, which means I eat eggs, milk products and seafood. It's great for cutting down on greasy and oily foods if done well.

    One great tip is to steam cook your food whenever you have the option to cut down on how much oil you eat. Also watch out for hydrogenated oils, those are the real kickers. It doesn't matter if it's olive oil so long as it's been partially hydrogenated. And the worse part is just about every processed food has hydrogenated oils in it. :(

    Now isn't this fun. =D

  4. I wonder why you never respond to any of your blog comments. You'd get more repeat readers.

    I have naturally low cholestrol. It's genetic. Depending on my diet the overall is between 76 and 142. The 76 was when I was on my health kick and being super good about my diet and exercise. The 146 is when I ate junk and did nothing.

    I'm overweight and people assume that I'll have high blood pressure, diabetes, and bad cholestorol. None of these are true.

    And if one more person tells me to lose weight for my health, I may pop them one. I have problems with food where I overeat. I'm aware of it and working on it.

    But I hate that people assume I'm a walking medical disaster because i'm overweight.

    BUt on a less angry note, Oatmeal helps slightly to lower cholestoral. Probably not enough for it to matter but adding it to your diet will get you another few points down.


  5. Hi Tirz. I try to respond to blog comments, but I'm on a time crunch with two little kids in the house. :)

    I eat oatmeal often, even make my own granola with it. And yes, it's a shame people look at someone and decide how healthy they are. I know slim people with diabetes and who have had heart attacks.

  6. I agree with you, Telliot. I'll be doing a post on hydrogenated oils, and I hope you'll feel free to chime in as well. And yes, steaming vegetables is a superb way to cook.

  7. Hi Kim,
    First let me say that the blog idea is great. Wow, your numbers are high. Total cholesterol numbers should be below 200. LDL (bad cholesterol) should be below 80 and HDL (good Cholesterol) should be above 40. My LDL has been as high as 93 in the past five years and now is 76. Everything that I have read suggests that good cholesterol helps the body get rid of bad cholesterol. It seems to be working that way for me anyway. I am also on Zocor for lowering cholesterol and currently my good level is in the mid fifties. However, my most recent Triglyceride numbers are higher, sitting at around 130. I need to watch those sugary treats, since I had been in the 80-90 range in the past.

    On the subject of Niacin, my Doctor had me try Niacin. I routinely have blood tests done and over time he has raised the amount of Niacin that I take to 1500mg per day. There really wasn’t much change until I reached the 1500mg level. This has had the expected result of raising my “good” cholesterol to around 55. It was in the mid 40s for years. By the way, the Niacin that I’m talking about here is Slo-Niacin, which is a slow release formula. One other word about Niacin, the tingling feeling you can get from taking it can be reduced or eliminated by taking an Aspirin a short time before. I need to take an Aspirin anyway so I take my Aspirin about 20-30 minutes before hand and for the most part don’t get the tingling sensation. I buy the over the counter Slo-Niacin made by Upsher-Smith at my local Wegman’s Grocery Store. Niacin can be very dangerous if taken in excess. You should work with your doctor and follow their recommendation for the amount to take. I would hope that any doctor also orders a blood test to watch for potential liver damage.

    Another “drug” that I take is Omega 3 Fish Oil. My Cardiologist put me on it shortly after I had bypass surgery. Fish oil has been found to decrease triglycerides, raise HDL ("good") cholesterol, and also thins the blood. Some people have reported a burp or after taste of fish. The only time I’ve ever experienced this is if I have something hot to eat or drink after taking it. A nice cup of hot tea is sure to cause this problem for me. The fish oil that I buy at my favorite grocery store is Mason natural Omega-3 Fish Oil 1000mg softgels. I take one capsule in the morning and one in the evening giving me a 2000mg daily dose.
    I've read that eating fish does not work the same way as taking the fish oil capsules. Anyway, keep up your progress on your cholesterol fight and keep blogging.

  8. Thanks, John.

    I took the slow-release niacin, but it ended up too expensive for me to continue using, though I noticed an improvement in my mood while on it, while regular niacin seems to have no effect mood-wise.

    I take Omega-3 fish oil capsules when I remember to take them...about as often as when I take my calcium pills. In other words, not often enough. :) I need to get on the program. Your tip is a good reminder I need to be more diligent. Have you noticed a difference in your cholesterol levels since taking the Omega-3?

  9. I'm not sure what I pay for Niacin, but I know it's helping me. I don't think I've noticed any mood effects though. I'll have to ask others around me what they think about that.

    I've been on the Omega-3 since having bypass surgery in 12/2003. I don't know what my cholesterol was before that, so I can't say what effect, if any, the Omega-3 had on my levels. I think of it as a lubricant for your blood to get through those blood vessels that are lined with junk. I'm also on Plavix, which I think works much the same way.

    The Omega-3 isn't expensive, I pay around $15 for a bottle of 120. I guess it's all relative since my Plavix costs me $400 for a 90 day supply.

  10. Low grade systemic inflammation certainly has a place in the development of coronary heart disease. However, heart disease is multifactorial and inflammation does not exclude other factors. Poor cholesterol ratios (TC/HDL) is still a risk factor. And there are others: cholesterol oxidation, insulin resistance, free radicals, lack of omega-3 fatty acids (increases the risk of arrhythmias and thrombosis), endothelial dysfunction, vascular and aortic calcification etc.
    generic zetia

    1. Good point, generic zetia. There are so many factors involved that it's difficult to pinpoint a health plan that helps everyone across the board. And I should probably do a post on Omega-3s. Thank you.


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