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    What comes to mind when you think of cholesterol? For many of us, the word conjures bad news about the state of our arteries. That said, there are natural ways to lower cholesterol — but that's only half the story.


    Not all cholesterol is bad cholesterol. It's just as important to increase your intake of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol as it is to decrease your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Doing so can protect you from a variety of diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. HDL acts as an industrial vacuum that cleans up LDL, known as bad cholesterol, and transports it back to the liver, where it's broken down and passed out of the body. High levels of LDL cholesterol stick to the walls of your arteries and can clog or block them, according to the National Library of Medicine.


    If your doctor has said you have high cholesterol, you may be feeling a little upset. Fortunately, there are simple lifestyle changes you can incorporate into your daily routine to help improve your levels and decrease your risk for heart disease.


    1. Eat the Right Foods

    As you look for natural ways to lower cholesterol, the first order of business is changing your diet. A diet that's high in saturated fats (like those found in processed foods, some meats, baked goods and fried foods) or trans fats (often found in fast foods and hydrogenated oils) can raise your LDL cholesterol.


    Choose lean meats, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fatty fish and foods high in soluble fiber.


    • Eating foods that are high in soluble fiber — like whole oats, oat bran or whole grain cereal — can help keep your digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol.
    • Fatty fish like salmon and tuna, walnuts, almonds, flax seeds and chia seeds all contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy fats that may help raise HDL numbers.
    • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, in a range of colors, is good for your heart because they are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — plus, they can also help lower bad cholesterol.


    If you want to reduce bad cholesterol, minimize the number of foods in your diet that are high in saturated fat, trans fats and added sugar. Read labels and aim for a daily intake of less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day. As a general rule of thumb, cholesterol is usually found in foods that come from animals (e.g., egg yolks, dairy products, liver and other organ meats, and shrimp). Take care to limit salt to less than 2,300 mg a day (about 1 teaspoon of table salt) to help lower blood pressure.


    2. Maintain a Healthy Weight

    Being overweight tends to increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Losing even just 5% to 10% of your body weight can raise HDL numbers and provide protection against heart disease, according to Jackson Hospital.


    3. Commit to Regular Exercise

    Amping up your physical activity is another way to improve cholesterol levels and reach your weight goals. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week if your doctor says it's safe for you. Or, you might exercise vigorously for 20 minutes at least three times a week. Strength training or resistance training combined with aerobic exercise can also help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.


    Some ways to get more activity in your day:


    • Schedule two 15-minute sessions of resistance training or strength training per week.
    • Commit to a 10-minute walk before or after work.
    • Walk during your regular lunch breaks.
    • Create a playlist of music, podcasts or audiobooks to listen to while you walk.
    • Go on a bike ride.
    • Make walking your dog part of your exercise routine. Promise your pup at least 5 minutes a day at a brisk pace.
    • Find an activity you love (swimming, dancing, group fitness classes, cycling classes, etc.) and commit to doing it at least once a week.


    4. Quit Smoking

    There are many reasons to stop smoking, but if you're looking for lifestyle habits to improve cholesterol, ditching cigarettes is a no-brainer. The chemicals you inhale can damage your heart and blood vessels. It also increases LDL cholesterol levels and decreases HDL levels. According to the National Library of Medicine, smokers' good cholesterol levels rise when they kick the habit.


    5. Drink Less Alcohol

    Drinking alcohol in moderation may have some heart health benefits (hello, red wine), but excessive alcohol intake can negatively impact cholesterol. Stick to the recommended alcohol consumption guidelines: one drink per day for women of all ages and men over age 65, and up to two drinks per day for men 65 and younger. And remember: If you don't have a drink one day, that doesn't mean you should double up the next day! You won't be doing your heart any favors that way.


    6. Find Ways to De-Stress

    You've no doubt heard that stress can take its toll on your heart. One way is by triggering hormone changes in your body that produce cholesterol.


    Here are some healthy ways to curb stress:


    • Exercise and get your heart pumping. This releases endorphins, which can help you feel good and reduce stress.
    • Engross yourself in a relaxing activity — reading a book, watching a favorite show, baking or doing puzzles.
    • Spend time with loved ones who are soothing to be around.
    • Talk with a therapist and share what's on your mind.
    • Start a mindfulness practice, like meditation, or incorporate yoga into your daily routine.


    Medication and Cholesterol

    Sometimes, lifestyle changes aren't enough to bring cholesterol levels to a normal range. In that case, prescription medication may be needed. Medication in conjunction with lifestyle changes can be very effective for treating high cholesterol.


    If you do begin taking a cholesterol-lowering medication, be aware of possible side effects. Keep your doctor informed of any concerns you have and get regular check-ups so your doctor can monitor your progress and adjust your treatments as needed.


    Thank Yourself!

    Instead of thinking about what you have to give up, focus on how your life will change for the better: breathing easier, feeling more energized, and becoming more serene and mindful. Every change you make toward improving your cholesterol levels and heart health — whether that means going for a walk after lunch, participating in an online meditation session, or adding walnuts and salmon to your diet — gets you closer to a healthier future. You've got this!


    Written by: Diana Kelly Levey


    These articles are intended for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.