Cholesterol – we’ve all heard of it, but what actually is it and how does it affect our health?
As part of our Wellness Wednesdays campaign, we share a blog every Wednesday from Healthily – our preferred health partner – to give you tips, advice and guidance on a wide variety of health conditions. This blog gives a brief overview of high cholesterol, explaining what it is, how it can be dangerous to our overall health and what steps we can take to lower our levels.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is 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 we eat.
Having an excessively high level of lipids in your blood (hyperlipidemia) can have an effect on your health. High cholesterol itself doesn’t cause any symptoms, but it increases your risk of serious health conditions.
Why should I lower my levels?
Evidence strongly indicates that high levels can increase the risk of:
- narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- heart attack
- mini-stroke (TIA).
This is because cholesterol can build up in the artery wall, restricting the flow of blood to your heart, brain and the rest of your body. It also increases the chance of a blood clot developing somewhere.
Your risk of coronary heart disease (when your heart’s blood supply is blocked or disrupted) also rises as your blood’s cholesterol level increases and this can cause angina during physical activity.
What are the causes?
There are many factors that can increase your chance of having heart problems or stroke if you have high cholesterol, including the following:
- an unhealthy diet – some foods already contain cholesterol (known as dietary cholesterol) but it’s the amount of saturated fat in your diet which is more important;
- smoking – a chemical found in cigarettes called acrolein stops HDL from transporting LDL to the liver, leading to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis);
- having diabetes or high blood pressure (hypertension);
- having a family history of stroke or heart disease.
There’s also an inherited condition known as familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH). This can cause high cholesterol even in someone who eats healthily.
When should I test my levels?
Your doctor may recommend you have your blood cholesterol levels tested if you:
- have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease, stroke or mini-stroke (TIA) or peripheral arterial disease (PAD);
- are over 40;
- have a family history of early cardiovascular disease;
- have a close family member who has a cholesterol-related condition;
- are overweight;
- have high blood pressure, diabetes or a health condition that can increase cholesterol levels, such as an under-active thyroid.
How can I lower my cholesterol levels?
The first step in reducing cholesterol is to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. It’s important to keep your diet low in fatty food, especially food containing saturated fat, and eat lots of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals. This will also help to prevent high levels from returning.
Other lifestyle changes can also make a big difference. It will help to lower your levels if you do regular exercise and quit smoking.
If these measures aren’t helping to reduce your levels and you continue to be at a high risk of heart disease, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication such as statins. Your doctor will take into account the risk of any side effects from statins and the benefit of lowering your levels must outweigh any risks.
You can read the full article in the Healthily Health Library where it was originally published. Read more from Healthily on their website, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and download their app.
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