Cholesterol gets a very bad reputation but we actually need cholesterol in our blood to stay healthy. However, when our cholesterol levels get too high we start to put our health at some serious risk.
So how do you know if you’re in danger of having high cholesterol and what can you do to avoid it or bring your numbers down to a more acceptable level for a healthier life?
What is Cholesterol?
We need cholesterol to survive. It’s a substance that’s formed naturally in our liver. It helps to form part of the walls of the cells in our bodies and we couldn’t survive without it.
Cholesterol aids in the production of sex hormones, provides the building blocks for human tissue and helps with bile production in the liver.
If it’s naturally occurring, why is cholesterol bad for us?
Unfortunately the saying is true - too much of a good thing is bad for you.
When we refer to cholesterol we use two terms - LDL and HDL. Both of these are lipoproteins (compounds made of fat and protein) and their main job is to carry cholesterol around the bloodstream so it can do its job.
While HDL is known as ‘good’ cholesterol, LDL is the one we need to keep an eye on. Having too much LDL running around our bloodstream can lead to a hardening of the arteries. Hard, or plaque covered, arteries can subsequently lead to blood clots, strokes and heart failure.
Keeping an eye on your numbers
The only way to know if your cholesterol levels are ok is to have a blood test at your local GP or, if you’re monitoring your levels regularly, you might use an at-home personal cholesterol testing kit.
For most of us, reading and understanding the blood test results can be very confusing. You’ll receive a number for both HDL and LDL as well as for your overall cholesterol. As a general guide your cholesterol levels should be:
- Total cholesterol count under 5 (for most of us)
- ‘Bad’ LDL under 3
- ‘Good’ HDL over 1 (but the higher the better)
How to Improve Cholesterol Numbers
If your blood test shows that you have worryingly high cholesterol your GP may well offer you statins to help control the amount of bad LDL in your system. Statins are usually prescribed as a daily medicine and can dramatically decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke.
If your cholesterol levels are high but not worrying enough to prescribe statins you should seriously consider some lifestyle changes to help bring your levels down.If your levels are on the high side you will be unlikely to see them fall if you don’t attempt to change some of the underlying contributing factors.
What can I do to lower cholesterol numbers?
There are several things that affect your cholesterol numbers - many of which we do have control over.
- Diet. Eat foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats. Include more plant based foods in your diet and make sure you eat 5 portions a day of fruit and veg. Pulses, nuts and wholegrain foods are excellent cholesterol busters. Dairy, eggs and red meat should be eaten in moderation as they are high in dietary cholesterol. But the main thing to limit in your diet is saturated fats like butter, cheese and most fast food products.
- Weight. Unfortunately, being slim is no guarantee against having high cholesterol. Cholesterol will happily hide in over- or under-weight bodies. However, it is largely true that if you are overweight and you change your diet to drop excess pounds you will probably be doing your cholesterol levels some good by eating a much healthier diet and improving your lifestyle.
- Exercise. Keeping active has more benefits than simply improving your cholesterol but it is a very effective way of lowering your numbers and helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes. Studies have shown that moderate exercise (30 minutes of brisk walking per day for example) can slightly decrease your LDL levels. While 3 x 45 minute bursts of intense exercise per week can have a much more dramatic effect on lowering your LDL as well as raising your ‘good’ HDL levels.
- Stop smoking and Lower Alcohol intake. Quitting smoking can increase your ‘good’ HDL levels by up to 10%. Lowering your alcohol intake (e.g. no more than 3-5 units per week for women) will also help to reduce LDL levels and your risk of cardiovascular disease, as well some cancers such as breast cancer.
Unfortunately there are very few outward signs of high cholesterol and often the first sign there is a problem is when a medical emergency like a heart attack or stroke occurs. That’s why it’s so important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle as a life-long preventative measure, and to have your cholesterol levels checked regularly with your GP or your at home cholesterol testing kit.
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