The term cholesterol is one that you probably hear on a weekly basis, as it is often in the news or featured on TV. Commonly, the discussions being held are about the dangers of high cholesterol and the things that we can do to prevent this from happening.
Today’s post will look at what this substance actually is and what its function is within your body. It will also look at the dangers and causes of high cholesterol, before moving on to the lifestyle choices we can make to protect ourselves.
What is Cholesterol?
The NHS define cholesterol as a:
Fatty substance known as a lipid and is vital for the normal functioning of the body. It’s mainly made by the liver, but can also be found in some foods.”
The substance itself is carried in your blood by proteins, with the combination of the two being known medically as lipoproteins. There are two different types of lipoprotein:
- High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) – This carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to your liver, where it’s either broken down or passed out of your body as a waste product. This is also known as “good cholesterol,” and higher levels are better.
- Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) – This carries cholesterol to the cells that need it. However, if there is too much cholesterol for the cells to use it can build-up in the artery walls. This can lead to disease of the arteries, which therefore causes this type of lipoprotein to be “bad cholesterol.”
As have all heard, high cholesterol is bad for your body. The amount of the substance in your body can be measures with a blood test, with the recommended cholesterol levels in the blood varying between those with a higher or lower risk of developing arterial disease.
There are several factors which can lead to you having high levels of cholesterol in your body. High levels can increase your risk of several medical problems such as a heart attack or stroke, and the narrowing of your arteries. The build-up of cholesterol within your artery walls will restrict the blood flow to your heart, brain and the rest of your body, which in-turn increases the risk of a blood clot.
Causes of high cholesterol include:
- An unhealthy diet.
- High blood pressure.
- A family history of stroke or heart disease.
Other factors to consider include your age, as the older you are the greater the likelihood of your arteries narrowing.
There are several scenarios which may lead to your doctor recommending that you have your cholesterol levels tested. These include:
- Being diagnosed with coronary heart disease, a stroke, min-stroke or peripheral arterial disease.
- Having a family history of early cardiovascular disease.
- Being overweight.
- Having high blood pressure.
- Having diabetes.
During a cholesterol test, a blood sample will be taken which will then be used to determine the amount of LDL, HDL and other fatty substances such as triglycerides in your blood. To ensure that the test is accurate, you may be asked not to eat for 10-12 hours before the test.
Your blood cholesterol level is measure in units known as millimoles per litre of blood (mmoI/L). Your doctor or nurse will sit down and explain your results, whilst calculating whether you’re at a low, moderate or high risk of developing conditions including heart disease or a stroke within the next 10 years.
The Perfect Level
According to the NHS, the ideal total cholesterol levels should be 5mmoI/L or less for healthy adults and 4mmoI/L or less for those at high risk. For LDL, the ideal levels are 3mmoI/L or less for healthy adults and 2mmoI/L or less for those at high risk.
An ideal level of HDL is above 1mmol/L. A lower level of HDL can increase your risk of heart disease.
The risk projected by your doctor isn’t just based on your cholesterol reading however, with your body mass index (BMI), age, sex, family history, ethnicity and treatable risk factors also being taken into consideration.
Ways to Lower your Cholesterol
The first step to lowering your levels or preventing high levels in the first place is to maintain a health, balanced diet. One thing you should keep a watchful eye on in particular is the amount of saturated fats that you’re eating.
Eating too many foods high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and unfortunately, it’s this type of food that people in the UK are eating too much of. Examples of the foods that are high in saturated fat include:
- Cakes and biscuits.
- Sausages and fatty cuts of meat.
- Meat pies.
- Hard cheeses.
Instead, you should try and eat small amounts of foods which contain unsaturated fat as these foods can actually reduce your cholesterol levels. Examples include oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils.
You should also include plenty of fibre within your diet as this helps lower your risk of heart disease, and some high-fibre foods can help lower your cholesterol. It is recommended that adults aim for at least 30g of fibre each day. This can be achieved by eating a mix of sources such as:
- Wholemeal bread.
- Potatoes with skin on.
- Oats and barley.
- Fruit and vegetables.
- Nuts and seeds.
Smoking increases the risk of several cardiovascular diseases, such as a stroke and heart disease. The chemicals from a cigarette will lead to a build-up of fatty materials within the lining of your arteries, and therefore narrows the artery.
Your blood is also more likely to clot due to smoking and your heart will also have to pump much harder due to the lack of oxygen in your blood. You can read our article on stopping smoking to help make a change today.
Exercising routines can help to strengthen your heart and reduce your “bad cholesterol” levels. As you may already know, it is recommended that we take part in at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week in order to remain fit and healthy.
Of course you don’t have to go all out straight away. The British Heart Foundation suggest breaking the 150 minutes down into ten minute sessions throughout the day to begin with. You can see an example of their own 10-minute workout above. You should also be realistic about your goals and make them achievable.
Everyday activities will count towards your 150 minutes, so make sure you try and be on the move throughout the day. Perhaps you could walk to the shop rather than driving? Or maybe you could cycle to work instead of driving.
Other tips for preventing or lowering your cholesterol include:
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