What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the blood and in some foods. In the body it is produced by the liver and is essential for the production of certain hormones and building cell walls. (1)
Cholesterol is vital for the health of our bodies and also produces bile acid for digesting food and vitamin D.
Foods that contain cholesterol (saturated fats) derive from animals and include egg yolks, whole milk dairy products and meat. (2)
However, it’s estimated 37 percent of the population have a cholesterol level which is deemed to be unhealthy. Therefore it puts them on the front line for other chronic diseases. (3)
As we can see cholesterol performs vital functions in our body. However, there are two types of cholesterol, the “good” and the “bad”.
High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), is also known as “good” cholesterol. This form takes the excess from our blood and transports it to the liver so it can be removed from our body. (4)
Then you have, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), otherwise called “bad” cholesterol. It also transports cholesterol around the body to where it might be needed. However, as well as depositing it to repair cells it leaves excess cholesterol behind in the arteries.
Very low density lipoprotein cholesterol (VLDL) is another “bad” form of cholesterol. When levels of this substance are high it can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Triglycerides are another fatty substance in our blood, in fact it’s the most common type of lipid (fat) in the body. Their role is to store excess energy we produce from our diet. VLDL is responsible for carrying triglycerides around the body. (5,6,7)
We have detailed the different types of cholesterol and established there is “good” and “bad” cholesterol. The main concern is the build up up of LDL cholesterol and the effects that can have on your body.
You could describe LDL cholesterol as a conveyor belt which drops things off as it moves along its way. Much like that found in a warehouse which deposits goods at stations as it passes.
Keeping with this principle, HDL cholesterol could be considered the equivalent to the workers. They pick up the goods and move them to where they need to be.
However, if there are not enough workers then too many goods get deposited in one place. This means a backup on the conveyor belt and everything gets blocked.
In a similar manner LDL and VLDL deposit cholesterol and triglycerides in our arteries which causes a build up of a substance called plaque. Too little HDL means that these deposits cannot be moved to the liver for excretion from the body.
There are four lifestyle factors that contribute to high levels of LDL cholesterol:
Eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats can increase your levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Our body generates the amount of LDL cholesterol we need, therefore adding more from our diet increases concentrations.
Saturated fat is found in animal products like red meat or chicken with the skin left on. Cheese, cream, milk, butter, egg yolks and other dairy products also contain this type of fat. Other foods like coconut and coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter also are sources of saturated fat.
In order to lower cholesterol there are recommendations from the American Heart Association. They stipulate not to consume in excess of five to six percent of your daily calories from saturated fats. (8)
Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make them solid. These fats are founds in foods like cookies, cakes, pastries, potato chips, margarine and fried foods.
Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
Recommended daily intake of all fats should be 20 to 30 percent of your total calories per day. Obtaining them from vegetable oils like sunflower, canola or olive oil is beneficial to your cholesterol levels. (9)
Lack of Exercise
The direct result of not getting enough exercise equates to lowering “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels, this means less in the body to remove the “bad” (LDL).
Just 40 minutes of moderate exercise like swimming, walking briskly or cycling, three times a week can help reduce cholesterol. (10)
Smoking is not good for us in many ways and one adverse effect is lowering levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Being overweight increases the amount of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol in our body, it also reduces the levels of HDL cholesterol.
Having identified some of the causes of high cholesterol we will now detail the risks these pose to our health.
This is the medical term for a buildup of cholesterol, cell waste products and fatty substances deposited in the arteries. This is more commonly called plaque and causes the arteries to narrow, therefore reducing blood flow.
Arteries which are either fully or partially blocked, especially involving blood supply to areas like the heart, can cause diseases. (15)
Coronary Heart Disease
This disease involves a buildup of plaque in the arteries which feeds oxygenated blood to the heart. The plaque can harden over time narrowing the arteries and restricting blood flow. It could also rupture, resulting in the formation of a blood clot which can also stop or decrease blood flow to the heart. (16)
The heart gets damaged when it’s starved of oxygen and nutrients obtained from blood flow. This happens when a blood clot causes a blockage in an artery. The main offender is plaque in the arteries and the result is what we know as a heart attack. (17)
Interrupted blood flow can be the result of a blockage or rupture in a blood vessel supplying the brain. When this happens the affected part of the brain begins to die and the part of the body it controls won’t work properly.
Rupture of plaque in the arteries can cause a blood clot which can travel to these blood vessels and cause a stroke. (18)
The cardiovascular system involves all the parts of the body that pump and carry blood. When this system is impaired due to a buildup of plaque in the arteries many conditions can result. These include heart conditions and blood clots in the circulatory system. (19)
High cholesterol in itself does not present with any symptoms. Likelihood is that you will only be aware of it following a blood test or developing an associated condition. (20)
As cholesterol does not have any symptoms, you should get a medical professional to advise you on testing your levels.
The general recommendation is if you are older than 20 years, you get tested every four to six years. This may be recommended more often if there are risk factors involved.
A test for cholesterol levels involves taking some blood and having it analysed in a lab. To test triglyceride levels alongside LDL and HDL cholesterol then you will likely be asked to fast before blood is taken.
When considering the risk of levels to your health your doctor will take other factors into account. These include your age, sex and family history as well as whether you smoke, have diabetes or high blood pressure. (21)
What is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy fat found in the blood and in some foods. There are also “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL and VLDL) cholesterols.
What causes cholesterol? All the cholesterol we need is produced in our body by the liver. Adding more cholesterol from foods can elevate levels of “bad” cholesterol and reduce levels of “good” cholesterol.
How do doctors test for cholesterol? A blood test analysed in a laboratory will show the levels of different cholesterol in your body.
When should you go to the doctors with cholesterol? You will likely be unaware that your cholesterol levels are not what they should be. Anyone over 20 years of age should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.
Can you prevent cholesterol? There are lifestyle factors which can help reduce or prevent high cholesterol. Follow a healthy diet which is low in saturated and trans fats. Exercise regularly, at least three times a week for around forty minutes. Don’t smoke and try to maintain a healthy weight.
What can relieve cholesterol? If you are overweight then losing some will help lower cholesterol levels. If you smoke, quitting will improve cholesterol levels quickly. Avoid foods that you know are unhealthy like pastries, cakes, chips and fried foods. Also, limit the amount of red meat, cheese and dairy that you eat.
What are the risk factors of cholesterol? Cardiovascular diseases are the main risk of high cholesterol levels. There are other factors that can contribute and these include age, sex, family history, smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Can cholesterol be treated? Apart from the lifestyle changes we have mentioned there are medications that can help lower cholesterol. Your doctor can advise you of the best options for you. (22)
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the blood and also in certain foods. There are “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL and VLDL) cholesterols in the body.
It is unlikely we will know whether our levels are high however a simple blood test can identify this for you.
Knowing how much cholesterol we have in our body can help us manage and prevent further complications such as: heart diseases, circulatory conditions and strokes.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes and regular exercise along with following a healthy diet can keep cholesterol levels in check.