Cholesterol is a necessary, naturally occurring substance within the body. However, having too much cholesterol can be bad for you as it increases your risk of developing certain serious medical conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, mini-strokes or blood clots.
The amount of cholesterol in the body can be measured using a blood test and should be less than 5mmol/L. Higher levels can be caused by a poor diet rich in saturated fat, smoking, or genetic factors such as a family history of stroke or heart disease. You can change your diet in order to lower your levels, focusing on healthy, low fat foods, give up smoking and exercise more. Doctors can also prescribe medication which can help to lower levels of harmful cholesterol in the body.
Dr. Diana Gall
Our Health Care Team
"When someone is diagnosed with having high cholesterol, that usually means that their blood contains high levels of LDLs, a particular type of cholesterol commonly known as “bad” cholesterol. LDLs can cause serious health problems if there are too many of them in the body. For many people, a well-balanced diet and exercise is enough to achieve a healthy level of cholesterol. But for others, circumstances make this goal more difficult. Happily, there are medicines which can be prescribed for cutting down the amount of “bad” cholesterol in the body."
Cholesterol in a nutshell
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in a person’s blood which is naturally produced by the liver. Cholesterol does important jobs for the body, but having too much cholesterol can lead to the development of harmful conditions.
At normal levels, the body uses cholesterol to build healthy cells. Cholesterol also assists in the processes of digesting food, producing hormones and generating vitamin D. Your diet is the main thing which influences how much cholesterol is in your body and eating too many fatty foods leads to high cholesterol.
Good and bad cholesterol
There are numerous types of cholesterol, which are usually simplified into two forms. One is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as “good” cholesterol. The other is low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as “bad” cholesterol.
HDL/good cholesterol picks up excess cholesterol in your blood and transports it back to your liver. LDL/bad cholesterol moves cholesterol particles throughout your body and these particles can build up walls within your arteries, making them hard and narrow. These restrictions in the arteries are what can ultimately cause health problems for people.
Normal and high cholesterol levels
You can have different levels of the various types of lipoproteins in your body, so the term “high cholesterol” is quite vague and can be misleading. But what people generally mean when using the term high cholesterol is that the amount of LDLs/bad cholesterol in the body is higher than what would be considered a normal, healthy amount.
When someone is doing well in terms of their diet and level of exercise, the cholesterol levels should remain consistently at a normal amount. Maintaining this is a key building block to having a healthy body through life.
Signs of high cholesterol
While high cholesterol on its own does not cause symptoms, it can lead to the development of blood-related health problems, such as the following:
- Narrowing of arteries
- Blood clots
- Heart attack
- TIA (mini stroke)
- Artery diseases
- Heart diseases
Because high cholesterol doesn’t cause symptoms, the only way to find out if you have it is to have a blood test. Your GP could suggest having a blood test if they think your cholesterol level may be high.
There are two methods for having a cholesterol test. One is to take blood from your arm, which is normally done with a needle. The blood sample will be sent to a lab to analyse the cholesterol level and you should get the results back in a few days. Another method is a finger-prick test, which may be done automatically if you’re over 40 and having your NHS health check. In this test, one of your fingers is pricked and a drop of blood is put on a strip of paper. This paper is then put in a machine which can check your cholesterol in just a few minutes.
Who’s most at risk of high cholesterol?
Certain people are more at risk of developing high cholesterol than others. The risk factors can be split into two types – fixed factors and lifestyle factors.
The fixed factors are things that cannot be changed, and they include the following:
- Age – The older you are, the more likely it is you can end up with high cholesterol
- Gender – Men are more likely than women to experience a build-up of cholesterol
- Ethnic group – Men of South Asian origin are more vulnerable to cholesterol issues
- You have a family history of coronary heart disease
- You have a kidney disease
- You have a liver disease
- You have hypothyroidism
The lifestyle factors are based on things which an individual can influence and includes the following:
- Being obese
- Having an unhealthy diet filled with saturated fats
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Large waist circumference
- Low activity levels
You can decrease your chances of getting high cholesterol by removing any of these lifestyle factors which may currently be part of your life.
How to lower cholesterol
The best ways to lower your cholesterol and keep it at a consistently healthy level is to maintain a diet which is low in saturated fats. That means minimising your intake of certain foods like the following:
- High-fat meats
- Hard cheeses
- Coconut/palm oil
It would be beneficial to replace fatty foods in your diet with ones that promote healthier living, such as the following:
- Oily fish (like mackerel and salmon)
- Brown rice, bread and pasta
Other steps you can take to achieve healthy cholesterol levels include exercising (or exercising more than you do at the moment), quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol.
Treatments for high cholesterol
There are several medications which can be used as a treatment for high cholesterol. These particular medicines are classed as statins and they are taken to reduce the amount of LDL/bad cholesterol which the liver produces and decrease the total amount of LDLs in the body.
Medicines prescribed for treating high cholesterol should be taken in addition to following methods to reduce cholesterol like the ones mentioned above. Statins should be treated as an aid rather than a replacement for a healthy diet.
Not everyone who struggles with high cholesterol necessarily needs statins to improve their health. Such medication is usually only prescribed when lifestyle changes have been trialled and have proved insufficient on their own. Examples of statins used for treating high cholesterol include Atorvastatin, Pravastatin and Simvastatin.