Cholesterol is a thick waxy substance naturally produced by your liver. The amount of cholesterol in your blood stream is largely determined by the amount you produce, however dietary cholesterol can also be found in some foods including egg yolks and seafood.
Cholesterol is essential for your health and is used by every cell in your body, but if you produce too much of it it can contribute towards you developing cardiovascular disease (cvd) such as a stroke or heart attack.
There are two types of cholesterol :
- HDL cholesterol: This is the so called “good ”cholesterol, the name given to high density lipoproteins (HDL). This is protective against heart disease and transports cholesterol back to your liver.
- LDL cholesterol: LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, is the name given to low density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol which is more strongly associated with cvd.
Around six out of ten people in the UK have raised cholesterol and there are rarely any warning signs if you have high cholesterol. In some cases the first sign is a heart attack or stroke itself, but early warning signs could be angina (short lasting central chest pain), pain on walking or fatty deposits on the eyelids. The only real way to check is to have a blood test with your GP or other healthcare professional.
In most cases high cholesterol doesn’t have any symptoms – like high blood pressure you’ll only be aware you have a problem if you have a test – in this case a blood test.
Results from a blood test will tell you if your cholesterol is healthy, or too high. A healthy total cholesterol level should be less than 5 millimoles of cholesterol per litre of blood (mmol/L), or 4 mmol/L in higher risk groups such as diabetics.
You should also be given a breakdown of the HDL/ LDL levels in your blood. LDL cholesterol levels should ideally be less than 3 mmol/L (2 mmol/L if you’re in a high risk risk group) and HDL levels should be over 1 mmol/L for a man and 1.2 mmol/L for a woman.
Like other factors relating to cvd, there are a number of uncontrollable risk factors, but also many you can control by making small changes in your lifestyle.
Some of the uncontrollable factors include:
- having a close family relative, or family history, of high cholesterol
- having a close family member who has had an early heart attack or stroke. This is below the age of 45 in males and 55 in females.
- increasing age. Unfortunately, the risk of high cholesterol increases as we grow older
- having another health condition, such as diabetes or under active thyroid gland
- if you are of South Asian or Caribbean descent
Some of the factors you can take control of include:
- not being active enough
- a high saturated fat or sugar diet
- a diet high in cholesterol
- consuming too much alcohol
Reducing Your Risk
If you’ve been diagnosed with raised cholesterol, or if your’re looking to prevent high cholesterol, the good news is you can do lots to help by making small changes to your lifestyle.
Some of the changes you could make include:
- Eat less saturated fats: Foods containing saturated fats include pies, fried foods, processed ready meals, chips, butter, hard cheeses, cakes and biscuits
- Eat more healthy fats: Foods such as avocado, oily fish (salmon, sardines or mackerel), nuts, seeds and olive oil contain fats which can raise HDL cholesterol
- Eating more fibre: This is found in foods such as oats (porridge), barley, peas, beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables. Fibre can help lower total cholesterol
- Giving up smoking: Smoking can raise cholesterol levels, so take steps to give up. Whilst quitting is never easy, thousands of people successfully quit every year. For information and support in quitting click the heading of this section
- Doing more exercise: Exercising boosts production of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. Aim for 150 minutes of execise a week which increases your temperature and breathing rate. This can be broken into shorter bouts, as long as each bout lasts longer than 10 minutes
In some cases your GP may also feel that you also need to take a medication alongside making lifestyle changes. A statin is the most common medication for treating high cholesterol.