Cholesterol is one of those confusing health topics. You hear some people saying it causes heart attacks and then others talking about good cholesterol. You may even have heard how eating high cholesterol foods doesn’t necessarily affect the cholesterol levels in your blood. A lot of confusing talk, right?
Here’s all you need to know about cholesterol including ways to reduce cholesterol naturally.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy and fat like substance found in your body’s bloodstream and cells. It is good for you in general as it plays an important role in forming cell membranes.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid, as it does not dissolve in water or your blood. It is transported around your blood by certain proteins and this combination is referred to as a lipoprotein.
What is good and bad cholesterol?
There are two types of lipoproteins: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
HDL is produced by your small intestine and liver. HDL removes excess cholesterol from cells around your body, carrying it back to your liver where it is broken down and disposed. As such, HDL is known as good cholesterol and you want a high level of this.
LDL carries cholesterol to cells around your body where it is used to form cell membranes. The trouble is when there is more cholesterol being transported to cells than required. In these cases cholesterol is recirculated until it is eventually deposited onto the artery walls. This build up is known as plaque and also consists of fats such as triglycerides and other substances which can lead to health problems. Because of this, LDL is known as bad cholesterol.
If you struggle to remember which type of cholesterol is good and which is bad, associate the “H” in “HDL” with healthy.
What causes high cholesterol?
There are many factors that can increase your risk of high cholesterol including your diet, lifestyle, existing health conditions and genetics. These include:
Things you can control
- Eating a poor diet with high levels of saturated fats
- Being overweight or obese
- Drinking excessively or smoking
Things you can’t control
- Having certain underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease and an underactive thyroid
- Having a family history of cholesterol or a cholesterol related condition
- Age, your arteries are more likely to become narrower as you get older
- Being of South Asian descent
- Being a man
What are the risks of high cholesterol for men?
The health consequences of high cholesterol levels can be fatal. The plaque build up on your arteries due to LDL increases the risk of:
- Narrowing arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Coronary heart disease, the number 1 killer of men in the UK
- Chest pains
- Heart attacks
- Transient ischaemic attacks (TIA) also known as a “mini-stroke”
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) where blood supply to legs is restricted
- Blood clots
How do you measure your cholesterol level?
Men need to pay particular attention to monitoring their blood cholesterol levels as high cholesterol does not typically have any symptoms.
Cholesterol levels can be measured with a simple blood test. The standard blood test will measure your levels of HDL, LDL and other fatty substances called triglycerides.
A newer type of test measures your levels of non-HDL which is total cholesterol less HDL cholesterol and is seen as a more accurate way of estimating cardiovascular disease than LDL. This test has the added benefit of not requiring you to fast beforehand.
You may find it useful to get your blood cholesterol levels measured as part of your annual health check up. Also note that cholesterol tests are offered to everyone between the ages of 40-74 as part of regular NHS Health Checks which are recommended every five years. If you are worried about your cholesterol levels than you can also ask for a cholesterol check from your doctor or nurse at any time.
Certain groups of people perceived to be at higher risk such as those with high blood pressure or diabetes, or who have prior history or family history of related illnesses should have more regular cholesterol tests. If you believe that you may fall under this category you should consult your doctor.
Your cholesterol levels will be recorded in millimoles per litre (mmol/L). The NHS recommends the following:
High Risk Adults
Ratio of Total Cholesterol to HDL
Your doctor or nurse will be able to provide more guidance about what your results mean. As a general rule of thumb, anything outside these recommendations may mean that you at a higher risk of heart disease.
Lower cholesterol naturally through diet and lifestyle
The great news is that many people are able to manage and lower cholesterol levels and prevent any future health implications by having a healthy diet and lifestyle. Again, remember preventative action works best!
Reduce saturated fat intake
- Avoid foods high in saturated fats such as fried food, fatty meats, processed meats (e.g. sausages and pork pies), butter, cream, ice cream, hard cheeses, cakes, biscuits, milk chocolate as well as products containing coconut or palm oil
- Look for ways to replace saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats such as oil fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
- Guidelines recommend that a maximum of 11% of total dietary intake should come from saturated fats. This equates to 30g for men (or 20g for women).
Don’t confuse dietary cholesterol
- Foods rich in cholesterol - also known as dietary cholesterol - such as eggs, shellfish, sardines and organ meats, do not significantly impact the cholesterol levels in your blood. It’s mainly the saturated fats that you should be worried about.
Eat plenty of fibre
- Foods high in fibre can move cholesterol out of your bloodstream
- Fibrous foods include wholemeal bread and cereals, fruits and vegetables, potatoes, oats, barley, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds
- Guidelines recommend that adults should eat at least 30g of fibre every day
Eat foods rich in omega-3
- There is some evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids found in avocados and oily fish can be good for you and your cardiovascular health. This is because they reduce triglyceride levels, another type of blood fat that is often considered together with cholesterol as it can cause narrowing arteries (atherosclerosis).
- Evidence suggests that regular aerobic exercise raises your levels of HDL, the “good cholesterol”
- It also helps you to maintain a healthy weight
Maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise
- Excess weight can increase your levels of the “bad cholesterol” LDL, triglyceride and total cholesterol. At the same time it can also lower HDL levels.
- Calculate your BMI to give an estimate of whether you need to lose weight. But be careful as there are limitations with using BMI. For instance, BMI doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat so can produce some bizarre results.
- Cigarettes contain a harmful chemical called acrolein which prevents HDL taking cholesterol back to the liver. As a result, smokers will have higher cholesterol levels than otherwise and at a greater risk of narrowing arteries.
- There are various forms of cholesterol lowering medication that your doctor may recommend such as statins if changes to your lifestyle and diet do not cause your cholesterol levels to fall.
Cholesterol is certainly one of the more confusing health topics - in fact there can be both good and bad cholesterol. However, given the connection between high cholesterol and health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks and strokes it is paramount that you keep an eye on yours. As high cholesterol does not typically have any symptoms, you should consider getting your blood cholesterol levels measured.
The good news is that many people can lower cholesterol naturally by taking good care of their lifestyle by eating healthily, avoiding saturated fats, exercising regularly and not smoking.
This article was created for informational purposes only and does not necessarily represent the views of For Chaps Ltd. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.