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Why are lipid levels important for cardiovascular health?

how to improve lipid levels

Your body’s cardiovascular system — the network of vessels that carry blood from the heart throughout the body and back to the heart again — is akin to a set of interconnected freeways. Blood, lipids, and other substances are like the cars on those freeways, able to carry cargo over great distances relatively quickly. Also known as fats, lipids largely have a bad reputation; and, indeed, a lipid such as low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, increases cardiovascular disease risk.

However, many types of lipids exist — and not all are harmful. In fact, many lipids are important because they travel through the blood and alter the absorption of substances, such as vitamins and other types of lipids. One lipid, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), is linked to lower risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Your lipid profile, and the resultant health of your cardiovascular system, is affected by several variables, including your genetics and family history. Lifestyle choices also impact your lipid levels — and so, too, your heart health.

Both regular exercise and a healthy diet can aid in the reduction of harmful levels of lipids while also reducing the presence of subcutaneous and visceral fat, which lie just underneath your skin and hug your organs, respectively.

This report will help you better understand what lipids are, how they relate to heart health, and what you can do — particularly regarding your gut microbiome and how best “to feed it” — to improve your lipid profile and so reduce risks of adverse cardiovascular events. 


What kinds of lipids are in your body?

In general, lipids comprise a group of fatty compounds, such as:

  • Triglycerides. When you consume more calories than you need, the excess calories are converted into triglycerides — a type of fat found in blood — and stored in fat cells for later use. Gram for gram, fat provides more energy (more than twice the amount) than carbohydrates or protein. Continually consuming excess calories, however, generates high levels of triglycerides and can lead to a condition called hypertriglyceridemia. Coupled with low HDL (the “good” cholesterol”) and high LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), high triglyceride levels increase risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).
  • Phospholipids. Comprising only 2% of dietary lipids, phospholipids are crucial for contributing to cell membrane fluidity. You may have heard of the phospholipid bilayer, which is the basis of cell structure. Phospholipids also aid in transporting fat in the bloodstream.
    • Sterols. Perhaps the most well-known sterol is cholesterol, which plays a key role in maintaining appropriate fluidity of the phospholipid bilayer, allowing only certain molecules to move in and out of the cell. Cholesterol is also critical in synthesizing hormones, vitamin D, and bile salts. Additionally, cholesterol is required for rapid brain communication because it helps create myelin — a type of fat that insulates neurons and allows brain signals to travel vast distances quickly. This is really important when quick thinking is needed, like when you accidentally place your hand on a hot stove and need to withdraw it quickly. Not all cholesterol is good, however, and it’s important to regulate your cholesterol intake.
    • HDL. Lipids are often negatively associated with health, but it’s important to realize that there are good fats and bad fats. Good fats include HDL cholesterol, which helps clear excess cholesterol from the body. Other good fats include monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, and some nuts and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6-fatty acids found in fatty fish, such as salmon or vegetable oils, such as corn oil. Importantly, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are less likely to cause plaque buildup in your arteries. While the differences between mono- and polyunsaturated fats are chemical, the important thing to note here is that the body is able to produce monounsaturated fats, while polyunsaturated fats must be consumed.
    • LDL. There are also bad fats, such as LDL cholesterol, which can cause plaque buildup in blood vessels, eventually leading to heart attack and stroke. LDLs are found in saturated fats, such as those found in red meats, full-fat dairy products, or fast food. Another key source of LDLs are in the dreaded trans fats, which result from a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation transforms otherwise healthy oils into solids in order to prevent them from going bad. However, this process removes all nutritional benefits and both increases LDL and reduces HDL, resulting in increased risk of inflammation, stroke, diabetes, and other diseases. This is why many countries have officially banned trans fats from being added to foods.

    The importance of lipids for heart health

    It is clear that the relationship between lipids and heart health is dependent on numerous factors, including the type of lipid and the overall lipid profile for each person. These, together with genetic factors and lifestyle choices (such as diet and exercise), affect heart health. Besides the functions listed above, lipids play important supportive roles in heart health, including:

  • Insulating and protecting. There are two main types of fat: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat surrounds organs including the heart and provides a level of insulation. Subcutaneous fat lies beneath the skin and insulates the body to protect it from large swings in temperature. It also provides a bit of padding especially in areas such as the hands, feet, and butt that are frequently in contact with hard surfaces. While some amount of fat is healthy to have, too much can lead to cardiovascular problems.

  • Increasing the bioavailability of certain compounds. Bioavailability refers to the ability of a drug or other compound (for example, vitamins) to be absorbed and used by the body. Lipids can increase the bioavailability of certain compounds — including beneficial polyphenols, such as curcumin, which is found in turmeric (one of the Eden’s ingredients that is scientifically recognized for its anti-inflammatory, pro-microbial, and cardioprotective properties). In fact, lipids are so beneficial at increasing bioavailability that they are being actively engineered for enhancing drug delivery and therapeutics.

  • Connecting the gut to the heart. The gut microbiome consists of millions of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and yeast that play vital roles in human health. Certain species of microorganisms are associated with changing levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and having a greater diversity of beneficial microbes has been associated with healthier lipid levels.
  • The dangers of lipids for heart health

    A poor lipid profile can lead to underlying causes of various CVDs, including:

  • Atherosclerosis. High LDL levels are associated with increased risk for atherosclerosis. LDL cholesterol can accumulate on the walls of blood vessels, activating an inflammatory response leading to plaque buildup. LDL also carries another class of harmful lipids, called ceramides, through the blood. Eventually, blood, fats, and other substances circulating in the blood can get caught in the plaque, causing the blood vessel walls to narrow and reducing efficient blood flow in the area. Although mild atherosclerosis doesn’t tend to have symptoms, moderate-to-severe atherosclerosis can result in chest pain, numbness, speech difficulty, or kidney failure. When plaque buildup affects blood going into the heart, this can result in development of coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart failure. Atherosclerosis can be mitigated by eating healthy foods to increase HDL levels, exercising, and other positive lifestyle changes.

  • Thrombosis. Plaques that build up on blood vessel walls can build to the point where they can become blood clots which can rupture or break off, traveling great distances in the blood. Unfortunately, thrombosis is common and is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths worldwide because the clots can travel to critical areas of the body, such as the lungs or brain, leading to stroke or pulmonary embolism. The traditional way of treating and preventing thrombosis is using anticoagulatory drugs, but this can cause bleeding complications down the line. An alternative is to target a major culprit: LDL. As with atherosclerosis, increasing HDL levels and making other lifestyle choices can reduce the risk for, and even treat, thrombosis.
  • How to improve lipid levels

    Now that we know that not all lipids are bad, and the combination of lipids that makes up your lipid profile directly affects your cardiovascular health, here are some ways you can improve your lipid levels:

  • Increase aerobic exercise. Even moderate levels of aerobic exercise can improve your lipid profile and decrease risk for CVD by raising HDL levels while lowering triglyceride levels. (The evidence regarding the effects of exercise on LDL levels is mixed.)

  • Change your diet. It is becoming increasingly clear that your gut health can contribute significantly to your lipid profile, and thus to your heart health. Important elements of a healthy diet include regular intake of a diverse mix of foods high in prebiotic fibers (found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds), which can reduce cholesterol absorption, together with a balanced blend of probiotics and polyphenols — all available in a plant-forward diet. It’s also important to reduce your intake of saturated fat and eliminate trans fat. Swap these bad fats with healthy fats, such as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fatty fish and vegetable oils) and monounsaturated fats (found in avocados and some nuts and seeds).
  • Take medication. When changes to diet and exercise are not enough, medications can help. While we’re not in the business of recommending pharmaceuticals, it is well known that statins are the major class of medications that can improve lipid levels by lowering LDL and triglycerides. Some statins have been shown to moderately increase HDL levels. Be sure to talk with your medical provider if you want to discuss your options.
  • Key takeaways

    There are many types of lipids that can either positively or negatively affect cardiovascular health. In particular, LDL and triglycerides are linked with increased CVD risk, while HDL is associated with decreased CVD risk. Although certain levels of these lipids are necessary for our bodies, maintaining a good lipid profile is essential for heart health. Increasing aerobic exercise, upping your consumption of prebiotic fiber-rich plant-based foods, and incorporating healthy fats (such as those found in fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil) are great lifestyle changes that support cardiovascular health. Adding a nutritional supplement that has scientifically-backed ingredients, such as Eden’s synbiotic, can give your body an extra boost toward improved lipid levels, plus other health benefits in the areas of glycemic control, digestive health, and immunity enhancement.