Cholesterol…it’s a word we hear a lot, and although most of us are aware that having high cholesterol isn’t a good thing, I’m sure many of you have no idea of what a safe or optimum level is, or indeed what cholesterol even actually is!
There are numerous products out there claiming to help lower cholesterol, from margarine spreads to yogurt drinks, but can these products make a difference?
So many questions, and unless you’re willing to sit down and do your research it still very much feels as though it’s something you need only worry about if your GP happens to alert you to a problem during a routine health check.
October is National Cholesterol month and as the month comes to a close we’ve put together an informative yet easy to understand guide on everything you need to know about cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
We all have cholesterol and we all need cholesterol, the problem is we don’t need too much of it. Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance found both in the blood and in every cell of the body, and is vital for many of our bodily functions including the production of cell membranes, hormones and Vitamin D. It is produced naturally in the liver, but is also found in certain foods and as you can imagine, when we eat too many of these cholesterol containing foods that’s when our cholesterol balance can start to get out of whack.
Think about it, if you were to tip the fat from your Sunday roast down the sink…the fat sets and clogs it up right? Well it’s the same for cholesterol and your inner pipes. Over time cholesterol gradually builds up on the artery walls, slowly but surely narrowing the space and thus restricting the flow of blood that’s trying to pass through. Restricted blood flow also means restricted oxygen to the bodys vital organs, in particular the heart, and this means increased chance of a heart attack or stroke.
Statistics from the British Heart Foundation show that over 7 million people in the UK have some form of cardiovascular disease and every year 200,000 people end up in hospital after a heart attack, 158,000 die from heart disease, and 40,000 die from strokes. These numbers are as high as the cholesterol that contributes to them and it is one of the biggest risk factors associated with heart disease. But it’s not all doom and gloom because if healthy changes are made and if something is done about cholesterol levels early enough, our long term health need not suffer.
How Do I Know If I Have High Cholesterol?
OK so here’s the thing, knowing whether or not you have high cholesterol is actually really difficult and it’s certainly not known as the ‘silent killer’ for nothing! Other than getting tested, which we’ll talk more about in a bit, there aren’t really any symptoms other than when it’s a bit too late. However, there are certain factors that will contribute towards high cholesterol, including:
- Eating high levels of saturated fat
- Inactivity/low levels of fitness
- Having diabetes or high blood pressure
- A family history of stroke or heart disease
- If you have familial hypercholesterolaemia – an inherited condition which causes high cholesterol regardless of whether you eat healthily.
Once you reach the grand old age of 40, your GP should invite you to an NHS health check, which will include a cholesterol test. Take advantage of this and get yourself checked out, you may think you’re fit and well but the numbers may suggest otherwise. And whilst we’re on the subject of numbers…
What Do The Numbers Mean?
Cholesterol is measured in millimoles and the level is based on how many of these units are contained within 1 litre of blood. The reading is a number followed by mmol/L, so for example you may have a reading of 5 mmol/L meaning there are 5 millimoles of cholesterol per litre of blood.
But of course it’s not as simple as that, because this level is made up of two readings:
- LDL – Low Density Lipoprotein (the bad stuff)
- HDL – High Density Lipoprotein (the good stuff)
And sometimes you may get a reading, which breaks it down into these two separate areas.
More numbers means more confusion right?
Here’s what you need to know:
LDL levels should be 3mmol/L or less and you’re looking at having a HDL level of above 1mmol/L for optimum health. The difference between the two types of cholesterol is that the HDLs are capable of transporting cholesterol away from the cells and returning it the liver where it can be broken down or passed as waste, whereas LDLs cling onto it and make it stick to the artery walls.
To help you know what you should be roughly aiming for, the current government guidelines recommend that a healthy adult should have a total cholesterol level of 5 mmol/L or less.
How Can I Lower My Cholesterol?
There are plenty of things you can do to help lower your cholesterol, but I guess first of all you need to establish whether or not you have anything to worry about.
As I’ve already mentioned, the NHS offer free checks to people over the age of 40, but high cholesterol doesn’t just affect people in this age bracket and I’m also fully aware that some people simply don’t like making a fuss and would rather not visit the GP unless they really have to. In this instance a home testing kit, such as this one https://www.pushdoctor.co.uk/test-your-cholesterol, is the absolute ideal solution as it allows you to carry out a test in the comfort of your own home and then act upon the results if need be. If the results suggest that your cholesterol levels are too high, then it’s time to do something about it. Firstly make an appointment to see your GP who will advise you on what steps to take. You should also view this as a kick up the backside to start making some healthy changes to your lifestyle. This could be:
- Stop smoking.
- Reduce the amount of saturated fatty foods in your diet – processed meats, processed cheeses, in fact processed anything!
- Swapping to heart healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds.
- Increase fibre rich foods.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Cook differently – instead of frying or roasting try grilling, steaming, poaching, boiling or microwaving your food.
- Regular exercise – you don’t have to go hell for leather to lead an active life, just make some simple swaps such as walking or cycling to work instead of driving or taking the stairs instead of the lift. Simple changes have huge benefits.
And yes there are food products out there that claim to help lower your cholesterol, and whilst they may help, it is really not the best solution and they are no substitute for a healthy balanced diet.
When Should I Seek Help?
Cholesterol can’t be seen and it can’t be felt, so unless you are tested you’re highly unlikely to know what’s going on inside your body until it’s reached dangerous levels. It can affect you at any age, you could be as fit as a fiddle, eat healthily and yet still you could be at risk of high cholesterol, so really the best thing to do is take a trip to your GP or buy a home testing kit.
If you have carried out a cholesterol test at home and the result suggests you have a higher than normal cholesterol reading, for your own health and peace of mind it’s time to consult the experts. Even if you have to be dragged there kicking and screaming, the GP is there to help and there really does come a time when you just have to give in.