Living with diabetes series
The Cholesterol-Diabetes Connection
And why it matters if you are living with diabetes
Let me say straight off that regardless of whether one has diabetes or not, cholesterol plays an important role in our health. Unhealthy cholesterol levels can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which is why people with diabetes are advised to get their blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels monitored at least once a year. We already know that diabetes means a higher risk for heart disease, so keeping cholesterol levels in check is a must.
Cholesterol levels are affected by diet, weight, exercise, age, and gender. Then there’s heredity and other causes like medications, conditions, and diseases.
A brief overview of cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy fat that exists in all cell membranes in the body tissues. It is insoluble in blood and travels through the plasma in the blood. Some cholesterol is necessary for producing cell membranes and hormones. Too much, especially of the wrong type can be fatal.
Cholesterol comes from fats in the food we consume (eggs, dairy, meat, and poultry). Besides this, our bodies produce it, thanks to trans fats in some of the foods we eat.
Let’s get a bit technical here. We hear about good cholesterol and bad cholesterol — HDL, LDL, and Triglycerides. Here’s the lowdown.
Cholesterol is attached to a protein and this is called a lipoprotein, which travels through the blood. These can be of different densities. Then there are triglycerides.
- LDL or low-density lipoproteins or bad cholesterol builds plaque in the artery walls, narrowing them. An increase of LDLs in the blood increases the risk of heart disease. Target levels should be 100 and below if you have diabetes and no heart health issues. For pre-existing heart conditions, 70 or lower is better.
- HDL or high-density lipoproteins or good cholesterol zaps bad cholesterol in the blood, so the more one has of it, the better. If HDL is low, the risk of heart disease is high. The target score should be above 50 for women and over 40 for men.
- Triglycerides are very low-density lipoproteins or VLDL. They are not the same as cholesterol. Nevertheless, they are a type of fat that plays a role in raising the risk of heart disease, like LDL. So, high triglycerides are a no-no. Aim for lower than 150.
High levels of cholesterol narrow the blood vessels, increasing the risk for other medical conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
What diseases can be caused by high cholesterol?
High cholesterol increases the risk of other conditions, depending on which blood vessels are narrowed or blocked. Some of these diseases include coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, high blood pressure, and of course, type 2 diabetes.
Coronary heart disease
This is the main risk related to high cholesterol. High cholesterol builds up on the walls of the arteries and gradually, this thickening of the arteries is called atherosclerosis. This makes the arteries narrow, reducing the blood flow to the heart, often resulting in angina or chest pain, or a heart attack if the blood vessel is completely blocked. The heart muscle begins to die.
A stroke is when the blood vessel carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain gets blocked or bursts, reducing blood supply to the brain, triggering brain death.
Peripheral arterial disease
This refers to diseases of blood vessels outside the heart and brain. Here, fatty deposits build up along the walls of the artery, affecting blood circulation, especially in the arteries leading to the legs and feet. Arteries in the kidney can also be affected.
High blood pressure
High BP is also linked to high cholesterol. When the arteries harden and narrow because of cholesterol plaque and calcium build-up (atherosclerosis), the heart has to strain much harder to pump blood through them. This shoots up the blood pressure.
Type 2 diabetes
With Type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar increases LDL cholesterol levels. This reduces the body’s ability to remove cholesterol. With high blood sugar, LDL and the LDL receptors in the liver are coated with sugar (glycosylated) and this gets in the way of the liver’s ability to remove cholesterol from the bloodstream. This in turn triggers the hardening of the arteries and increases the risk of fatal heart disease. High insulin levels can also increase LDL levels.
For a person with diabetes, a diet rich in carbs can elevate their insulin levels.
When cholesterol builds up in the blood vessels, it can impair or block circulation and that is why one must keep it at safe levels.
Can you control your cholesterol naturally?
Yes. Here are some basic tips:
- Include low cholesterol foods in your diet. Eat your colors through vegetables and fruits. Stick to foods that are low in saturated fat and trans-fat. Include foods high in fiber.
- Quit smoking. Smoking lowers your good cholesterol or HDL.
- Exercise to maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your triglyceride levels and lowers HDL Cholesterol and this can increase the risk for heart disease
- If on medication, take it regularly and combine it with a low cholesterol diet
A note about the complications of type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes can be easy to miss, particularly in the early stages, as I did — because I did not feel any different. Unfortunately, it quietly affects major organs in the body, including the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys. Diabetes also causes hearing impairment, foot damage, skin and mouth problems, and affects bone health. Some of these can cause disabilities or prove fatal. Keeping blood sugar levels in check can prevent or at least slow down the complications.
Treating type 2 diabetes focuses on lowering high cholesterol levels, reducing high blood pressure, and controlling high blood sugar with diet and exercise. If this doesn’t have an impact, medication cannot be avoided.
In a majority of people diagnosed with diabetes, the main problem is the lack of diabetes education. The Living with Type-2 Diabetes series will cover various aspects of the condition with tips and suggestions to manage it better.
In this series so far:
Disclaimer: The information in this post is purely for educational purposes only and does not substitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your physician for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.
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