High cholesterol can have a snowball effect on many parts of your health. Cholesterol doesn’t just flow through your blood. It can mix with other substances and form plaque deposits in arteries. This is called atherosclerosis. When that happens, blood has a harder time getting through those blood vessels. Depending on where plaque develops, you can have problems not only with your heart, but also your liver, kidneys, and even your brain.
Some causes of atherosclerosis are related to having too many of the bad fats: LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Others stem from not enough good HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which helps flush out the bad cholesterol.
Many of the same conditions linked with high cholesterol -- a diet high in saturated fat, being overweight, not enough exercise, and smoking -- can cause other health issues. With some of these conditions, the link works both ways: High cholesterol can help cause them, and they can be risk factors for high cholesterol.
High Blood Pressure
This could be because plaque from high cholesterol has narrowed your artery walls. If high blood pressure developed first, it can create little tears along arteries that attract that plaque.
Having high cholesterol along with two or more other specific conditions (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, and a large waist measurement) is called metabolic syndrome. Think of it as a flashing red warning sign for more serious conditions, from diabetes to heart disease.
Type 2 Diabetes
When there’s too much sugar in your blood for your body to process normally, it can lead to type 2 diabetes. There are many risk factors for diabetes. It’s linked to high LDL and low HDL cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, smoking, obesity, a lack of exercise, and poor sleep.
High blood sugar is a risk factor for high cholesterol, in particular a serious type of LDL cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein or VLDL. High blood sugar can also lower HDL. Like high blood pressure, high blood sugar can damage arteries.
Your thyroid is a tiny gland at the base of the front of your neck that helps you keep proper metabolism. In order to do this, it needs the right amounts of key hormones, like thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Not having enough TSH can cause hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid.
But even if your TSH level is just barely below normal, it can affect your cholesterol. Your HDL can be low and the other fats high. Getting thyroid disease under control isn’t enough to rein in cholesterol, and you may need separate treatment.
Your liver is a key organ involved in fat metabolism. Too much fat can accumulate in the liver just as it can circulate in your blood. You can get a fatty liver from drinking too much alcohol, but more and more people are getting it from being overweight and having high blood sugar and high blood fats. (When it’s not related to drinking, it’s called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD.)
High cholesterol and especially high triglycerides are risk factors for NAFLD, along with thyroid disease and type 2 diabetes. Research shows that a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet can set the stage for the most serious form of NAFLD, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH.
For instance, plaque that limits blood flow in the heart’s arteries can cause chest pain, called angina. If a piece of plaque breaks away, it can totally block blood flow. If this happens in a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the heart, it can cause a heart attack. If it happens in a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain, it can cause an ischemic stroke. This is the most common type of stroke, and the higher your levels of LDL, the higher your stroke risk.
Peripheral Artery Disease
You might know about the link between atherosclerosis and heart disease, but plaque buildup can happen in arteries anywhere in your body. When it happens in the arteries of your limbs, it’s called peripheral artery disease, or PAD. Many people have both heart disease and PAD because the risk factors are the same. When plaque is widespread in your body, you also have a higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
High cholesterol can harm your kidneys. Low levels of the good HDL cholesterol combined with high triglycerides can lead to kidney disease. If you have plaque buildup in the arteries leading to your kidneys, you’re at risk for high blood pressure and kidney failure. Kidney disease can cause a ripple effect: As it gets worse, the risk of thyroid disease and heart disease goes up.