There are various causes that can raise your blood cholesterol levels. The main cause that is difficult to prevent and which is rare includes the genetic cause, which gives rise to familial hypercholesterolemia. Other major ones are the environmental causes that include poor dietary choices, a physically inactive lifestyle, and obesity.

The most common cause of high cholesterol is eating an unhealthy diet. Unhealthy dietary choices include choosing foods that consist of saturated fats found in animal products and trans fats present in foods that are commercially packed such as baked cookies, doughnuts, and crackers, among others.

Some foods contain an extremely high amount of cholesterol and they can cause blood levels to rise very high. Organ meat is one, but the brain is the highest provider.

For example, a single 140 g serving of “pork brains in milk gravy” that is readily available can contain 3500 milligrams of cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults get no more than 300 mg of cholesterol per day.

Looking at the recommended amount and the enormous content in such foods, eating too much of such foods can cause a sudden rise in your cholesterol levels.

But high cholesterol is not just about an unhealthy diet. There are other nondietary causes that can raise your serum cholesterol levels. Some are major while some tend to be almost hidden from the general population and unknown.

For example, medical causes include certain drugs and hormonal therapies, which can increase your cholesterol.

High levels in the body in an otherwise healthy person can be deceptive because these elevated levels do not show any physical symptoms. They can show some warning signs when complications like a heart attack develop. To prevent such a thing from happening, periodic blood checkups will help.

All this does not mean that cholesterol is bad. Within normal and healthy blood levels, it is an essential fat for the body. The body needs it to make hormones, it is associated with vitamin D production from skin exposure to sunlight, it provides fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K to the body tissues and substances that help you to digest food.

However, when total and LDL rise above normal blood levels and stay that way, it causes serious health concerns.

Check out these statistical facts:

  • 71 million American adults, (33.5% of the population), have high low-density lipoprotein (LDL),
  • Less than half of these take treatment, knowingly or unknowingly
  • Almost one in two women in America has high cholesterol.
  • About 22% of young adults in their 20s have this problem.
  • Having high levels of this disorder puts you at twice the risk of getting a heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.
  • According to the American Heart Association, someone in the United States is having a heart attack every 43 seconds.

Having established the importance of this undesirable condition, you should know how often and when you should check your cholesterol levels.

You should also be aware of the normal, borderline, and elevated blood level cholesterol values. You can also access these numbers in both American and European units.

Medical studies indicate that the pathology of cardiovascular problems due to raised cholesterol has its beginnings in childhood and can be a major cause of premature heart disease.

Therefore, there is another post that tells you when cholesterol testing should be done in relation to age, whether in children, adults, or the elderly.

What does having high cholesterol mean?

If you’re typed by your doctor as a high cholesterol patient, it means your:

  • Levels of LDL also called “bad cholesterol,” are too high
  • Levels of triglycerides are too high
  • Levels of HDL also called “good cholesterol,” are too low

Why are high blood cholesterol levels bad?

Cholesterol has a wax-like constitution and therefore, cannot dissolve in blood, which is water based.

It, therefore, piggy rides on the back of the proteins to travel in the bloodstream and feed the body cells. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called lipoproteins.

Due to its waxy and sticky nature, an excess of cholesterol in the blood tends to stick to the inner walls of the arteries hardening the arterial walls.

Over time, this narrows down the lumen of the arteries and further can occlude it causing loss of blood supply to concerned part of the body. This is referred to as atherosclerosis.

  • In the heart, this can cause angina or a heart attack.
  • In the brain, this can cause a stroke.
  • In the peripheral parts of the body, this can cause peripheral vascular disease.

These are enough significant reasons to emphasize, why you should keep your cholesterol levels in check.

The main culprits whose high levels can cause these complications are LDL and triglycerides.

Here is the list of reasons that can cause your serum cholesterol levels to rise:

Causes of high cholesterol blood levels in the body

The body gets its cholesterol from two sources:

  • The liver produces 80 percent of the body requirement. In hypercholesterolemia due to hereditary causes, the liver produces more of cholesterol,
  • The balance 20 percent comes from the foods that you eat.

High levels are, therefore, caused either by overproduction by the liver or excess consumption from the high-fat foods that you eat.

Besides these, there are other nondietary causes and risk factors why you can get abnormal levels. They are explained here:

1. Hereditary cause of high cholesterol

You can inherit this high cholesterol trait from your parents. Family history will be a giveaway for this familial hypercholesterolemia predisposition.

If one or both of your parents, a brother or a sister has this condition, you too, are likely to develop this disorder and it can further put you at a high risk of premature cardiac complications if you do take care of it.

Family history is a warning sign and cautions that you are at a greater risk of developing high dangerous cholesterol levels.

People with high cholesterol due to hereditary causes have extremely high cholesterol levels of 300 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher. Such people may show symptoms such as deposits of cholesterol (xanthomas) over their tendons or under their eyelids (xanthelasmas).

Early diagnosis and management is the key to reducing the risk.

Unfortunately, estimates tell us that 90% of people with familial hypercholesterolemia are undiagnosed and harbor the risk.

Fortunately, the hereditary cause of high cholesterol is rare. Its incidence is not so high; familial hypercholesterolemia occurs in roughly 1 in 500 people (0.2%) worldwide if there is family history from only one parent.

If both the parents have high cholesterol, the chances of their child developing this disorder is about 1:1,000,000

2. Diet rich in saturated fats and trans fats: Most common cause

An unhealthy diet is the most common cause of having high cholesterol readings.  Foods that contain saturated fats and trans fat are the main culprits.

Trans fat foods not only raise your LDL but also lower your HDL, the good cholesterol. That makes it the worst food you can eat vis-à-vis cholesterol.

Saturated fats are found in (a few examples):

  • Dairy foods – such as butter, cheese, sour cream, ghee, full-fat milk and ice cream
  • Red Meat – such as fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb organ meat, processed meats like salami and sausages and the skin on chicken
  • Lard
  • Mayonnaise
  • Certain cooking oils like palm oil
  • Seafood like prawns and lobster

Trans fats are found in (a few examples):

  • Cakes, pies, and cookies
  • Biscuits
  • Margarine
  • Crackers
  • Doughnuts
  • Packed wafers

The American Heart Association recommends that you replace foods containing saturated fats and trans fats with foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

3. Being obese

Obesity is the cause of many health disorders. And having high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides is one of them. This puts the obese person at a very high risk of developing heart disease due to other factors as well.

Obesity means excess calories in your body. These extra calories are converted into fat and stored in the fat depots in the body.

If you are overweight, you just have to reduce your weight and bring it to normal. Do not wait till some health disorder develops, because develop it definitely will, sooner or later.

4. Diabetes common cause of high cholesterol

If you are diabetic or prone to diabetes due to hereditary causes, you must try and keep your blood sugar levels within normal limits.

Diabetes and high cholesterol are often associated together. The post explains why high sugar levels cause high cholesterol levels.

Diabetes and Cholesterol: Relationship, Diet and Drugs

5) Does alcohol cause high cholesterol? 

Drinking alcohol and increased cholesterol levels are essentially connected. According to a Japanese study conducted by the Japan’s Hyogo College of Medicine, even occasional heavy drinking can significantly boost the levels of blood cholesterol.

The study concluded that both occasional heavy drinkers and regular heavy drinkers have higher cholesterol, triglyceride, and overall blood-borne fat-related risks than nondrinkers.

So, does that mean you can drink in moderation? The answer is an emphatic “No’. Check this out.

Although 30 ml of alcohol consumption increase your HDL, it also simultaneously raises your triglyceride levels, thereby increasing your heart risk.

Again, the American heart association recommends that beginning to drink alcohol can increase the risk of addiction.

Secondly, alcoholism leads to a damaged liver, which then cannot metabolize the saturated fats from the diet and the cholesterol that the body produces. This leads to cholesterol buildup in the blood.

6. Smoking and high cholesterol

Cigarette smoking lowers the HDL cholesterol. The high number of toxins cigarette smoke contains damages the smooth inner lining of the blood vessels and makes it easier for the cholesterol plaques to get deposited.

This also increases the risk of developing blood clots.

7. Lack of physical activity: A sedentary lifestyle

Having no physical activity or exercise doubles the risk of obesity and significantly increases your chances of developing high levels of LDL and total cholesterol. It will also lower your HDL levels.

Physical inactivity also increases your risk of diabetes, which again can increase your cholesterol.

Exercising every day for about 30 minutes is a must as it gives you tremendous benefits, which extend to almost all systems of your body. Exercise reduces your LDL and increases HDL.

8. Continuous stress

Being continuously off and on under mental stress can increase your cholesterol levels because stress causes the release of two hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones stimulate the liver to produce and release more cholesterol.

This is done basically to give your body more energy to deal with the stressful situation like running away or fighting the situation. If your work requires you to handle stress, learn to raise your stress threshold. There are various ways to do it. Meditation works wonderfully well.

9. Age and gender

As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels tend to rise. Before menopause, women have lower total levels than men of the same age because of the protective effect of the estrogen hormone. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.

10. Large waist circumference

Your risk of high cholesterol increases as the girth of your tummy increases. This connection is established.

If you are a man with a waist of minimum 40 inches (102 centimeters) or a woman with a waist of at least 35 inches (89 centimeters), you should check your cholesterol levels periodically and at the same time exercise to lower your abdominal girth.

People with a large abdominal girth are 70 percent more likely to die of heart disease than those with smaller waists.

11. Hypothyroidism and high cholesterol

The thyroid gland situated in the neck in front of the windpipe can become overactive or underactive.

Thyroid hormones help to produce cholesterol in the body and also to get rid of any excess of it in order to maintain normal levels.

An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) means that lower levels of the thyroid hormones are circulating in the blood and subsequently, your body is unable to break down the LDL cholesterol as efficiently. This causes more cholesterol to float around in the blood.

An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) has the opposite effect and can drop the levels to abnormally low values.

12. Medical causes that raise your cholesterol levels

Certain drugs and hormonal therapies are known to cause hyperlipidemia. They are classified as medical causes and include:

  • Estrogen and corticosteroids can raise the levels of triglycerides and HDL.
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Beta blockers prescribed for hypertension and glaucoma
  • Diuretics prescribed for hypertension and to get rid of extra accumulated fluid in the body.