What is cholesterol and how does it affect your health?

man clutching his heart while a doctor examines him.The BBC reports that heart-related deaths are at a 14-year high. One of the biggest risk factors is high cholesterol, a condition that over half of UK adults live with every day.

While high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease and strokes, there are some simple lifestyle changes you can make now which will help you control your cholesterol levels.

Read on to learn more about how cholesterol affects your health and how you can reduce your risk of heart disease.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of blood fat which plays crucial roles in how your body works, especially in your brain, nerves, and skin.

Cholesterol has three main functions:

  • Creating vitamin D and steroid hormones to keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy
  • Making up the membrane of all your cells
  • Turning into bile, which helps to digest the fats you eat.

There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because an excess of it can harden in your arteries, making it tougher for blood to flow through. On the other hand, HDL carries cholesterol away from your cells and artery walls to the liver, where it’s broken down and excreted.

When people discuss dangerously high cholesterol, they are usually referring to high non-HDL levels.

What can cause high cholesterol levels?

Anyone can develop high cholesterol levels through a variety of factors, some of which you can control.

For example, all the below can cause high cholesterol levels:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Eating too much saturated fat.

However, your cholesterol levels can also be affected by things you can’t control. For example, age, gender, and ethnicity can all affect whether you are more at risk of developing high cholesterol.

Furthermore, high cholesterol levels can be caused by some health conditions such as kidney or liver disease, type 2 diabetes, or having an underactive thyroid.

What are the risks of high cholesterol?

When you have an excess of LDL cholesterol, it can build up on the walls of your arteries and harden into plaque, which reduces blood flow and can lead to health problems.

The most common complications of high cholesterol are coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and strokes, which can all increase your risk of a heart-related death.

However, there are often no symptoms of high cholesterol levels, which means many people don’t realise they have the condition until too late.

If you would like to check your cholesterol levels, please speak to your doctor, who can arrange a blood test.

How can I lower my cholesterol levels?

Luckily, there are steps you can take to lower your cholesterol levels and, so, your risk of a heart-related death.

1. Keep active

Exercising regularly can raise your levels of HDL and lower LDL cholesterol.

The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderately intense or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week. However, even working out once or twice a week can be incredibly beneficial to your health.

2. Eat less fatty food

Cutting down on fatty food – especially that which has saturated fats in – can help to reduce your cholesterol levels.

Instead, switch to healthier foods, such as:

  • Oily fish, like mackerel and salmon
  • Brown rice, wholegrain bread, and wholewheat pasta
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruits and vegetables.

If you aren’t sure whether something contains saturated or unsaturated fats, you can check the label.

3. Eat more fibre

Adding more fibre to your diet can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.

Fibre can be found in foods such as oatmeal, kidney beans, and apples.

Additionally, adding more dairy products into your diet can lower your LDL cholesterol and overall cholesterol levels thanks to them containing whey protein.

4. Quit smoking and drinking

If you smoke, now might be the time to consider quitting. Smoking makes LDL cholesterol “stickier”, so it is more likely to cling to your artery walls, as well as lowering your HDL cholesterol levels.

Additionally, if you regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, it might be beneficial for you to cut down. Ensuring you have several drink-free days each week and avoiding binge drinking can also reduce your cholesterol levels.

If you are struggling to cut down on your alcohol or smoking habits, speak to your doctor as they can offer you help and support.