Did you know cholesterol is vital to us? It gets a bad rap, but this fatty substance, which is in every cell of your body, is used to make vitamin D and steroid hormones. It even helps to make bile, which you need to digest other fats! We get some cholesterol from the foods we eat, but around 80% is made by our very own liver in an impressive 37-step process.
What is High Cholesterol?
The problems start to emerge when you have too much cholesterol, specifically too much non-high-density lipoproteins.
... Er, what!? ...
So, it turns out there are two main types of cholesterol: one is considered good and the other bad. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) is considered good cholesterol, as it gets rid of the bad cholesterol. Non-high-density lipoproteins (non-HDL) is bad cholesterol because when there is too much, it builds up and clogs the arteries. This makes it harder for blood to flow efficiently and can lead to some nasty side effects down the line.
Who is Most Prone to High-Cholesterol?
It's important to note that anybody can get high cholesterol, however, some people are more prone to it than others. There are some factors which cannot be controlled, but others are lifestyle habits. Those who eat too much-saturated fat, do not get enough exercise and have too much body fat around their middle are at greater risk of developing high cholesterol. Likewise, if you smoke, are overweight or have diabetes, you are at more risk.
Unfortunately, there are some risk factors which you can't control, such as your age, sex and ethnical background. Some people are also born with a form of high cholesterol (Familial Hypercholesterolaemia).
What are the Symptoms of High Cholesterol?
Annoyingly, there often aren't any signs associated with high cholesterol until it's too late. That's why it's so important to get it checked out.
How Can You Get Tested For High Cholesterol?
Your GP may want you to get a test if you have one of the aforementioned risk factors. The NHS suggest you should have one if you:
· have never had one and are over the age of 40
· are overweight or obese
· if high cholesterol runs in your family
To find out if you have high cholesterol, you'll need a blood test. This can be done by taking blood from your arm; the sample will be sent to a lab and you will get the result in a few days. This test may involve fasting for 12 hours beforehand. Alternatively, there is a finger-prick test. These results will be available in minutes.
When you get your results, ask if you can see your good and bad cholesterol levels, as well as the triglyceride levels alongside the total cholesterol. The NHS says a healthy range is 5 or below for total cholesterol, 1 or below for HDL, 4 or below for Non-HDL and 2.3 or below for triglycerides.
To book an appointment, contact your local GP surgery. They will be able to advise which type of test they have available, too.
What Happens Is It Goes Untreated And How Can It Be Treated?
It's something you'll want to take seriously because high cholesterol clogs up your arteries and this can lead to all manner of heart health problems including coronary heart disease, angina, a heart attack, heart failure, as well as, stroke and mini-strokes, peripheral arterial disease and vascular dementia.
The good news is, there are various lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your cholesterol naturally. These include: eating fewer fatty foods, exercising more, stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol.
If your cholesterol is particularly high, and your GP feels lifestyle changes alone won’t suffice, they may suggest using medication to lower it, usually statins. The NHS states these are usually only offered to people who have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease or another cardiovascular disease, as well as to those whose family medical history indicates they may develop the problem in the next decade.
What Changes Can We Make In The Foods We Wat?
Swapping out saturated fat for healthier unsaturated fat can help lower your cholesterol levels. Avocados are an excellent choice as they are packed full of nutrients; an analysis of ten studies found that eating avocado over other fats was linked with lower levels of cholesterol.
Another excellent source of fat is nuts. These tasty treats are packed full of phytosterols, a plant compound that help lower cholesterol by stopping it getting absorbed in your intestines. Studies have found that between two and three portions of nuts each day reduce bad cholesterol by around 10.2 mg/dl.
We all know fatty fish is important for brain health, but it turns out it is also vital for heart health. It's thought that the peptides in fish protein have heart-protective properties. A 25-year study found that those who consumed the most (non-fried) fish were the least likely to develop the metabolic syndrome (which results in low levels of good cholesterol).
Fibre helps reduce your risk of heart disease and some high-fibre foods can even help lower your cholesterol. You'll want to aim for at least 30g a day and go for a mix of sources such as wholegrain cereals, high-fibre fruit and vegetables, skin-on potatoes, oats and pulses.
Need convincing to load up on legumes? Research found that eating just 100g of legumes per day can lower bad cholesterol by an average of 6.6 mg/dl. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, variety is king. But you might want to make sure you load up on a certain type of fruit that contains pectin, as it's thought to lower cholesterol by up to 10%. It's found in apples, grapes, citrus fruits and strawberries. Now, who fancies a fruit salad?
Yes, really! Dark chocolate and cocoa can lower bad cholesterol. Cocoa and dark chocolate protect the bad cholesterol from oxidation, which is one of the key causes of heart disease. Stay away from sugary commercial chocolate though, you want at least 75%+ cocoa content or higher.
Grill, Steam, Poach or Boil
In order to help reduce the total amount of fat in your diet, consider how you cook your food. Instead of roasting or frying it, try to incorporate more grilling, steaming, poaching and boiling.
What Changes Can We Make In The Foods We Don't Eat?
If you're worried about high cholesterol, one of the first things to do is cut back on saturated fats. The NHS advises that most people in the UK eat too much-saturated fat! So that means fewer fatty cuts of meat, cheese, cakes and cream.
While trans fats are thought to be less of a problem than saturated fats (as they are generally consumed at lesser rates), you'll still want to be mindful of them. Small amounts are found in natural foods, like meat and dairy. You'll find the artificial types in processed foods like biscuits and cakes. So be sure to keep an eye on the label and avoid anything with trans fats.