The term high cholesterol generally refers to high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDLs) in your body. Over time, these can build up in the arteries and restrict blood flow to vital organs. There are several types of cholesterol, but we can lower the amount of LDLs in our blood by consuming fewer saturated fats such as chocolates and cakes. Cholesterol is naturally produced in the liver and is needed for some bodily functions, but an excessive amount can put you at risk of heart attack and stroke amongst other health conditions.
It is possible to lower the amount of bad cholesterol in your body through a combination of lifestyle changes and medications called statins, though there are certain fixed factors such as age, sex, and ethnic origin that may make you more susceptible to cholesterol problems. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking, low activity levels and excessive alcohol intake.
Some people are born with a condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia, meaning that LDLs build up in the arteries regardless of diet or age. In these cases, statins are often needed to reduce the production of lipids.
“Whilst having high levels of LDLs may not cause any symptoms on its own, it puts you at a much greater risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke due to restricted blood flow to the organs. It is extremely important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle in order to reduce the amount of LDLs in your blood. Some people may need additional help with this where they will be prescribed statins, but these aren’t a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.”
What is cholesterol?
Cholesteral is a waxy, fatty substance that is found in the blood and naturally produced by the body in the liver. It is also found in some foods, and cholesterol is vital for the body to produce vitamin D from sunlight.
There are several types of cholesterol, usually simplified into two forms:
- HDL (high density lipoproteins)
- LDL (low density lipoproteins)
What does high cholesterol mean?
High cholesterol can be a misleading term, as you can have different levels of the various types of lipoproteins in your body. High cholesterol generally refers to an elevated amount of LDLs in your body, also known as “bad cholesterol”. Whilst the body still needs this type of lipoprotein, too much of it can cause problems. It’s better to have higher levels of the HDLs (often called “good” cholesterol) in your body than any other. Having higher levels of LDLs than the body can process leads to them building up in the arteries and restricting the blood flow to various organs.
Whilst high cholesterol in itself won’t often present with many symptoms, it can put you at high risk of other conditions, such as:
- Narrowing of the arteries
- Heart attack
- TIA (mini stroke)
- Peripheral artery disease
- Blood clots
- Coronary heart disease
None of the above conditions are pleasant to live with, but your risk of experiencing them can be lowered by controlling your cholesterol levels and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Am I at risk of high cholesterol?
As with many health conditions, there are certain people that are more at risk of developing high cholesterol. The risk factors are classified into lifestyle factors and fixed factors. The lifestyle elements include:
- Unhealthy diet rich in saturated fats
- Low activity levels
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Large waist circumference
By changing your lifestyle, it is possible to eliminate these lifestyle factors. For example, restricting saturated fats, stopping smoking, doing more regular medium-intensity exercise and cutting down on your alcohol intake can all improve these elements and reduce your risk of high cholesterol. However, the fixed factors are things that aren’t able to be changed, such as:
- Age: the older you are, the more likely you are to suffer with high cholesterol. Doctors generally recommend getting your cholesterol levels tested above the age of 40 (we know, that isn’t old!)
- Sex: males are more likely to experience a build-up of cholesterol than women.
- Ethnic group: men of south Asian origin are more susceptible to cholesterol issues
- Family history of Coronary Heart Disease
- Having kidney disease
- Having liver disease
- Having hypothyroidism
There is another fixed factor which causes high cholesterol called familial hypercholesterolaemia. This is a condition where build-ups of LDLs still happen amongst people who eat a healthy diet regardless of age. It is thought to affect 1 in 500 people, so whilst it’s not the most common condition to have, it does need treatment to reduce the risks that come along with having high cholesterol.
How can I lower my cholesterol?
Luckily, there are ways to lower your cholesterol. Maintaining a diet that’s low in saturated fats is a great way to start. Instead of opting for chocolate, biscuits or cakes, try healthy snacks such as fruit. Adopting wholegrains into your diet will also help to lower cholesterol, for example, opting for wholegrain rice instead of long-grain or using lentils in cooking. It may also help to lower your salt intake. Although salt doesn’t directly cause high cholesterol, it can higher your blood pressure.
Other things to take into consideration are cutting down on your alcohol intake, if you smoke, trying to stop, and taking part in regular moderate-intensity exercise such as cycling or jogging.
Of course, the occasional treat is fine, moderation is encouraged widely by doctors and nutritionists, but regular intake of palm oil or saturated fats can cause serious health problems.
Can you treat high cholesterol?
Absolutely! A group of medications called statins can be prescribed to those with high cholesterol. They’re also called lipid regulating medicines and they work by lowering the production of LDLs in the liver and reducing the amount of them in your body. However, they are to be used alongside with the other methods mentioned above. Statins are an aid, not a replacement for a healthy diet. All types of statins work in similar way, but some are more effective at inhibiting the production of LDLs. A doctor will take into account how many low density lipoproteins are in your body through a blood test and will determine which statin is most appropriate for you. They will also account for any other conditions you may be diagnosed with and any medication you’re already taking.
It should be noted that statins, like most medications, can cause side effects. The most common of these are:
- Muscular aches and pains
There is a chance you won’t experience any of these, but there are also more serious side effects that you need to be aware of. Always read the patient information leaflet given to you with the medication (also available to download on each medication page at Doctor4U), as each type of statin has a different list. You also may not be able to take them if you have certain pre-existing conditions.
High cholesterol doesn’t necessarily mean you need medication. Statins are generally only prescribed once lifestyle changes have been trialled and haven’t been effective enough on their own.
Statins are generally taken once a day, and with a majority of varieties, it doesn’t matter when that is as long as they’re taken at the same time each day, though some do need to be taken at night. Your patient information leaflet should explain this if that’s the case.
Do low-cholesterol drinks really work?
You’d be forgiven for being sceptical of all the foods and drinks advertised as “proven to lower cholesterol”, but there is actually evidence to suggest that they work!
These drinks (such as benecol, for example), contain sterols and stanols, which have a similar structure to cholesterol. These help to reduce the absorption of LDLs in the gut, meaning that they can actually help to lower “bad” cholesterol.
It is recommended to consume around 3 grams of sterols and stanols per day if you suffer with high cholesterol, though any more than this amount won’t produce a greater effect. These are safe to be taken with statins as they reduce cholesterol in different ways, but it is important to know that sterols/stanols are not a substitute for prescription medication.
Do eggs cause high cholesterol?
It’s a common old wives tale that eating eggs will cause you to have high cholesterol. Whilst egg yolks do contain lipoproteins, the amount in them is highly unlikely to affect the amount of LDLs in your blood. It’s more important to avoid saturated fats, plus, eggs are good for you and therefore considered healthy to eat in moderation.