We’ve all been warned of the consequences of having high cholesterol, but most of us don’t even know exactly what cholesterol is or what it does for our bodies. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body produces naturally. It’s made in the liver, then circulates through the blood to help you digest food, create hormones, and produce vitamin D. Your body gets all the cholesterol it needs from the liver, but when you eat a diet high in full-fat dairy, meats, and saturated fats, your levels can go up.
Whether you’re predisposed to having high cholesterol or you eat a lot of unhealthy foods, there are steps you can take to lower your bad cholesterol.
1. Drink tea
Other benefits aside — and there are many — drinking tea can help lower cholesterol. A meta-analysis studying the effects of green tea consumption found the brewed beverage can favorably improve cholesterol. That being said, most of the trials were rather short. Even the longest ones were only conducted for three months.
A 2015 meta-analysis found black tea consumption can significantly reduce LDL levels, though the jury’s still out on whether or not it can help with total cholesterol levels.
2. Eat less bad fat and more good fat
If you see “partially hydrogenated” in the list of ingredients, pass that product by. It isn’t doing your body any favors. According to Harvard School of Public Health: “Partially hydrogenated oil is not the only source of trans fats in our diets. Trans fats are also naturally found in beef fat and dairy fat, in small amounts. Trans fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad LDL and lower good HDL.”
3. Stick to a plant-based diet
True, it’s trendy these days, but that doesn’t mean a plant-based diet is just a fad. Getting your fill of fruits and veggies has a serious impact on your health — it’s seriously good for you. Results from a study conducted by Stanford University showed that after four weeks, participants eating a plant-based diet rich in nutrients and phytochemicals reduced their total and LDL cholesterol significantly more than the participants consuming a standard low-fat diet.
Eat a diet with a low-glycemic load that’s high in fiber and includes healthy fats. You should also consume plenty of good-quality protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds.
It should go without saying: exercise, exercise, exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon. Just get moving. One way exercise can lower cholesterol is by helping you lose or maintain weight. Being overweight tends to increase bad LDL cholesterol, so it makes sense getting more movement into your day will help. Exercise can even raise good HDL.
Although any type of exercise helps your heart health, studies have found cardio done for 30 minutes or more (and that include intervals) seems to be a good benchmark.
5. Eat plenty of whole grains
A heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering diet doesn’t have to leave you hungry. In fact, whole grains are on the good list, and they’re super filling. According to Harvard School of Public Health, “Eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. Any of these changes would be expected to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Try some of these whole-grain, delicious, and heart-healthy combos: whole-grain toast with avocado, a whole-grain cereal topped with fresh fruit, or oatmeal with bananas and almond butter.
While diet and exercise can make a huge difference in your cholesterol levels, your doctor may choose to prescribe medications that can further lower LDL levels. The American Heart Association says statins are typically recommended for those who have high cholesterol, as they’re the only class of cholesterol-lowering medications that have a direct association with reduced heart attack and stroke risk.
Statins work by heading straight for the liver to prevent cholesterol from forming and reducing the amount circulated in your blood. Statins primarily lower LDL, but they also can lower triglycerides, fats found in the blood, and raise HDL. Those who have active or chronic liver disease are advised against taking statins, however, so this is not necessarily an option for everyone with high cholesterol.
7. Other doctor-recommended medications
For those who cannot take statins, there are still options your doctor may be able to suggest. WebMD explains cholesterol absorption inhibitors work by lowering the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs and are typically recommended along with lifestyle changes, such as a healthier diet and more exercise.
8. Lower stress levels
Most of us know stress can make us gain weight and lose sleep, but the bad news doesn’t end there. Stephen Kopecky, a preventative cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, tells The Wall Street Journal stress will definitely make your cholesterol levels go up, a fact that needs to be recognized more than it currently is.
Chronic stress is a bigger concern than smaller episodes of short-term stress. When you’re anxious for long periods of time, your body releases more cortisol and adrenaline, the hormones responsible for the fight-or-flight response. In the same story, Catherine Stoney, program director of the division of cardiovascular sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, says cortisol and adrenaline production release triglycerides and free fatty acids, which can give your LDL cholesterol levels an unwanted boost.
9. Quit smoking
Smoking is typically associated with lung disease, but its negative effects on cholesterol and the heart are just as dangerous. Livestrong.com explains smoking can actually lower HDL levels — once you quit, though, you can increase these levels by up to 20%. Smoking also allows LDL cholesterol to bind more effectively to the walls of the artery, which causes more deadly plaque to build.
You’re not safe just because you’re not a smoker, either — secondhand smoke has been shown to negatively affect HDL levels. Steer clear of cigarettes and those who smoke them to keep your cholesterol levels low.
Additional reporting by Lauren Weiler