Each year, we hear about high-performance athletes who died suddenly of heart disease, cardiac arrest, or stroke. Former ironman champion Dean Mercer died of a heart attack in 2017.
Celtic forward Reggie Lewis, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ryan Shay, bodybuilder Mike Matarazzo, and former England footballer Ugo Ehiogu all died of heart disease despite being physically active and eating clean.
According to the CDC, hypercholesterolemia doubles the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. The question is: how to lower cholesterol fast? Is there anything you can do to reverse plaque buildup in the arteries and keep your heart healthy?
In fact, young athletes are twice more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest compared to the average person. What’s even more surprising is that this condition tends to occur around age 17. While it’s true that heart disease can have genetic causes, elevated cholesterol plays a major role in its onset.
Let’s find out!
More than 96 million American adults have high total cholesterol levels. Approximately 71 million have high LDL cholesterol, but less than half get treatment. As the World Health Organization points out, this condition is responsible for a third of all causes of ischemic heart disease.
What You Need to Know about High Blood Cholesterol
Even a 10% reduction in cholesterol levels could cut your risk of heart disease by half, especially if you’re over 40 years old. Simple lifestyle changes, such as limiting processed foods and sugar, can make all the difference. If you’re a pro athlete or regular gym goer, it’s even more important to clean up your diet and take the steps needed to bring your cholesterol levels down.
Cholesterol and Hearth Health
Heart disease doesn’t always result from elevated cholesterol. Many times, it’s due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other genetically inherited heart disorders. However, hypercholesterolemia only makes things worse and can further increase your risk of developing cardiovascular problems.
Studies indicate that acquired atherosclerotic coronary artery disease is a major contributing factor to sudden cardiac death in athletes older than 35. Elevated cholesterol levels contribute to atherosclerosis, which in turn, may lead to coronary artery disease.
As you see, these heart conditions are strongly connected.
The problem is that high cholesterol has no symptoms. That’s why health experts recommend regular blood tests and cardiovascular screening. If your values are above normal, there are steps you can take to lower your cholesterol fast.
High Cholesterol Causes and Risk Factors
Bodybuilders and endurance athletes, especially those with a family history of heart disease, should not consider themselves immune to cardiovascular problems just because they have an active lifestyle. A 10-year study conducted on 2,300 Italian athletes has found that 4% of them had atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease, tachycardia, congenital heart disease, or high blood pressure.
High cholesterol combined with overtraining and mental stress can skyrocket your risk of heart disease. The odds of developing cardiovascular problems are even higher among athletes using anabolic steroids.
In fact, a single dose of testosterone enanthate (we should add exactly how much the dose of testosterone is to be accurate) can raise cholesterol levels by a whopping 15 percent within two days.
Anabolic steroids are notorious for their ability to alter blood lipids — they not only increase bad cholesterol but also reduce good cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of coronary artery disease. Depending on the substance used, these changes can persist for months after withdrawal.
AASs, though, are not the only risk factor for high cholesterol and heart disease.
What you eat has a major impact on cholesterol levels. Although some foods do contain cholesterol, they have little or no effect on blood cholesterol.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it’s the mix of fats and carbs in your diet — not the amount of cholesterol consumed — that affects blood cholesterol levels.
Eggs, prawns, meat organs, and other cholesterol-rich foods are unlikely to alter your blood lipids unless you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease and hypercholesterolemia. Trans fats and refined carbs, on the other hand, can trigger the onset of these conditions.
The Role of Cholesterol in Your Body
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol is not the enemy. Your body needs this compound to function optimally and produce cortisol and testosterone, cell membranes, bile acids, and vitamin D. More than three-quarters of the cholesterol in your system is made by the liver and plays a key role in:
- Calcium metabolism
- Stress response
- Nutrient absorption
- Cellular membrane physiology
- Cellular signaling
- Bile and hormone production
- Vitamin D synthesis
- Nerve function
- Brain health
At the most basic level, cholesterol is a waxy substance that occurs naturally in the body as well as in various foods. This compound is a precursor for all major sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. That’s why a common approach to increase testosterone levels is to fill up on cholesterol-rich foods.
A one-year study published in the journal Arteriosclerosis and Thrombosis assessed the link between cholesterol and testosterone. Male subjects with the highest HDL levels — or “good” cholesterol — also had the highest testosterone levels. Another study has found that low-fat, high-fiber diets reduced testosterone and DHT levels in men in as little as two months.
These findings show that a high-cholesterol diet can boost testosterone production. Low-fat diets have the opposite effect.
But not all cholesterol is created equal. There is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol — and each has a different impact on your health and physical performance.
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol and triglycerides are insoluble in water and can only be transported through your body in plasma lipoprotein particles. These particles can be divided into several categories based on their size, composition, and other criteria.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) take excess cholesterol from your cells and return it to the liver. These compounds are higher in protein and lower in cholesterol.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are higher in cholesterol and lower in protein. Their role is to transport cholesterol from the liver to your cells.
HDL is commonly referred to as good cholesterol, while LDL is known as bad cholesterol. A diet rich in trans fats as well as lack of exercise, stress, certain medications, and other factors can increase LDL and reduce HDL cholesterol levels. Even the slightest imbalance between the two can put you at risk for cardiovascular problems.
When your LDL levels are higher than normal, it means that you have excess cholesterol in your bloodstream. This fatty substance may build up in your artery walls and form plaque. As a result, your arteries become stiff and narrow, restricting or blocking blood flow to your heart.
How to know the difference?
A blood test is the only way to measure the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream. It indicates your LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol levels.
Regular testing is recommended to anyone who’s overweight or obese, has a family history of heart disease or hypercholesterolemia, or suffers from diabetes; women older than 55 and men age 45 and up should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years or so.
Ideally, your total cholesterol levels should be lower than 200 mg/dL. Any numbers higher than 240 mg/dL can double your risk of coronary heart disease.
LDL — or bad cholesterol levels — should not exceed 129 mg/dL. HDL cholesterol levels, by contrast, should be higher than 60 mg/dL.
How Long Does It Take to Lower Your Cholesterol Levels?
If your cholesterol levels are above normal, don’t fret. From tweaking your diet to losing a few pounds, there are a couple of steps you can take to lower your cholesterol fast. Most people who start working out and eating clean experience major improvements within three to six months.
You can speed up this process by filling up on antioxidants, limiting trans fats, and eating high-fiber foods. Certain dietary supplements, such as omega-3s, can help too. The key is to be consistent and make lasting lifestyle changes.
Athletes and gym goers will find it easier to improve their blood lipids. Exercise alone can reduce cholesterol levels. For faster results, follow these steps:
Lower Your Cholesterol Fast with Omega-3s
Polyunsaturated (PUFAs) fats, especially omega-3s, not only lower bad cholesterol levels but also raise good cholesterol.
When consumed as part of a balanced diet, they may improve cardiovascular health, prevent inflammation, and reduce heart disease risk. Salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, olive oil, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
In a 2010 study conducted on 13,614 people with cardiovascular problems, coronary artery disease risk dropped by 20% in those who replaced saturated fats with PUFAs.
A more recent study, which was published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease Lipids in Health and Disease, has linked the consumption of omega-3s to lower LDL and total cholesterol levels. Subjects also experienced an increase in HDL levels as well as major improvements in blood pressure in just 12 weeks.
A clinical trial assessed the effects of polyunsaturated effects versus vitamin E on 11,324 people surviving recent myocardial infarction. Those who took PUFA supplements had a 14% lower risk of sudden death and a 17% lower risk of cardiovascular death.
Other studies conducted over the years suggest that omega-3s and PUFAs, in general, reduce platelet aggregation and plaque buildup, improve heart rate variability, and help regulate blood pressure. Omega-3s also increase insulin sensitivity in muscles cells while helping to make fat cells for less sensitive to insulin. This bodes well for building muscle and staying leaner.
Fill Up on Soluble Fiber
How often do you eat oats, beans, peas, or rice bran? Probably not too often — especially if you’re trying to cut back on carbs.
Not all carbs are bad, though.
The foods listed above pack a hefty nutritional punch and boast large amounts of soluble fiber. Oats, for example, have been shown to reduce non-HDL cholesterol by 4.8% and bad cholesterol by up to 4.2%, leading to a lower risk of heart disease. These beneficial effects were noticed in people who ate as little as 3.5 grams of beta-glucan from oats on a daily basis.
Beta-glucan is a type of soluble fiber that occurs naturally in grains, vegetables, and some fruits. In clinical trials, subjects who consumed oats regularly experienced a 5% to 10% reduction in total and LDL cholesterol levels. The high fiber in the right complex carbs helps to slow digestion rates and prevent an over secretion of insulin after the food is eaten.
Beans & Legumes
Beans and other legumes have a similar effect. According to a 2014 study published in Live Science, eating one serving of legumes daily for six weeks may reduce bad cholesterol levels by a whopping 5%. Surprisingly, these benefits appear to be greater for men than for women.
What if you’re on a ketogenic or low-carb diet? You only need three grams of soluble fiber to reap its benefits. That’s less than a quarter cup of oats, so it can easily fit your macros.
Eat Salmon at Least Twice a Week
Salmon and other fatty fish are chock-full of omega-3s. Wild-caught varieties pack a lot more healthy fats than their farm-raised counterparts. These nutrients may increase bone strength and protect against osteoporosis, improve brain function, and boost cardiovascular health.
According to a 2014 review featured in Food & Function, the omega-3s in fish and fish oil are cardioprotective. When consumed regularly, these fats may improve blood lipids as well as blood pressure and overall cardiac function. Their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Golden Era bodybuilders ate a variety of minimally processed foods, including fatty fish, to stay lean and achieve peak performance. Mike Mentzer, for example, was getting around 15% of his daily calories from fats and 25% from protein. Unlike today’s bodybuilders, he didn’t obsess over weighing his food or counting calories.
Have you heard of Lee Haney?
Lee Haney preferred eating foods higher in fat during the off season to help boost his calories and increase his muscle mass. He ate five meals per day, which included high-protein and high-fat foods like walnuts, salmon, chicken, and eggs along with vegetables, legumes, and small amounts of starches. His body weight didn’t increase more than 10-15 pounds in the off-season.
Add Sterols to Your Diet
Ever heard of plant sterols and stanols? These compounds occur naturally in a variety of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and unrefined vegetable oils. Their chemical structure is similar to that of dietary cholesterol.
After ingestion, plant sterols and stanols reduce LDL cholesterol absorption in the bloodstream without affecting HDL levels. According to science, adding up to three grams of phytosterols to your daily meals can lower bad cholesterol by as much as 15%.
A study published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology has found that drinking plant sterol-fortified orange juice daily reduced LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B levels by 12.4% in just eight weeks. At the same time, it increased vitamin B12 and folate levels.
Make sure your diet includes wheat bran and wheat germs, extra virgin olive oil, cruciferous vegetables, almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, and pistachios. Blueberries and avocados are rich in sterols too. Consume two to three grams of phytosterols per day to bring your cholesterol levels down.
Cut Back on Trans Fats
If you eat clean and work out regularly, you already know that trans fats are bad for your health. These compounds increase the ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, trigger inflammation, and affect brain function. According to the latest research, they may also contribute to cognitive decline and impair mental performance.
What you may not know is that many so-called healthy foods are loaded with trans fatty acids. Your favorite protein bar, for instance, may contain hydrogenated palm kernel oil and other ingredients rich in trans fats. Packaged cake mixes, pancake powder, energy bars, granola, ready-made oatmeal, and microwavable popcorn fall in the same category.
To stay on the safe side, make a habit out of checking food labels. Steer clear of any products containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
Meat and dairy contain trans fats too. For example, some beef cuts are 2.8% to 9.5% trans fat. However, the trans fatty fats in unprocessed foods are less harmful than artificial trans fats.
Research shows that ruminant trans fats have little impact on blood lipids and cardiovascular health. Additionally, few people consume such large amounts of these fats to experience adverse effects.
Lose the Extra Weight
As you probably know, building muscle requires a calorie surplus. This means you need to take in more calories than you burn. When you’re bulking up, some fat gain is inevitable.
If your cholesterol levels are already high, think twice before going on a bulk. Studies indicate a direct link between weight loss and cholesterol levels. It appears that dietary long-term weight loss can positively alter cholesterol absorption and metabolism while lowering the risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
In a study, middle-aged obese men who went on a low-calorie diet experienced a 12% reduction in total cholesterol levels, a 10% reduction in LDL cholesterol, and a 26% decrease in triglycerides. Even though their HDL cholesterol levels initially dropped by 7%, they increased by 8% following subsequent weight loss, providing even more heart protection.
Now that you know how to lower cholesterol fast, tweak your diet and lifestyle habits. Beware that mental stress can increase cholesterol too, so give yourself a break. Eat clean, stick to your workouts, and stop stressing over small things.