Your blood cholesterol explained. When have you last had yours checked?

Did you know your body needs and makes its own cholesterol, which means there is no need to consume it in your diet? Many people do not realise this fact, and high blood cholesterol is a major health concern in Australia, affecting approximately half the adult population. Keeping blood cholesterol at a healthy level can help to reduce your risk of heart disease, and other serious health conditions.

Read on for more interesting facts about cholesterol, its role in the body, safe levels, and why it is dangerous to consume too much.

Cholesterol explained

Simply explained, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the blood. It is essential to metabolic processes such as making hormones and vitamin D, and it helps you digest food. Your body produces cholesterol, and it is also found in some foods. While the human body builds cells using cholesterol, too much puts you at risk of heart disease. 

The two most common types of cholesterol are:

1. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – the “bad” cholesterol

LDL makes up most cholesterol and is bad because it can stick to the walls of arteries, causing fatty plaque to build up. Excessive plaque leads to blockages which can prevent blood flowing effectively to the heart.  

2. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – the “good” cholesterol

HDL is health as it carries LDL away from the arteries and back to the liver so it can break down and then be passed as waste.

Cholesterol and triglycerides

Triglycerides are the most common body fat. If you’re overweight, eating lots of high fat and sugary foods or drinking too much alcohol, your triglyceride levels can increase. The combination of high triglycerides, along with either increased LDL cholesterol or decreased HDL cholesterol can increase the likelihood of fatty build-ups forming in the arteries, and clots. This means a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Importance of cholesterol checks

Symptoms for high cholesterol aren’t generally obvious, which is why it’s important to get a blood test and regular check-ups to ensure you cholesterol levels are safe. If you have other risk factors for disease it can be important to treat high cholesterol in order to prevent serious health conditions. For some people, diet and lifestyle changes are not enough. High blood cholesterol levels can often be genetic, so your doctor may recommend medications to reduce your blood LDL levels.

Measuring cholesterol

Cholesterol is measured with a fasting blood test called a lipid panel or lipid profile. The test can help determine your risk of atherosclerosis – the build-up of plaque that narrows or blocks arteries. A blood test is not always the best measure of your risk of heart disease on its own, so your doctor will speak to you about other heart disease risk factors and may offer you other tests. Risk factors might include:

  • Your age
  • If you smoke
  • Your physical activity levels
  • If you are overweight or obese
  • Your family history
  • Your diet 

Keeping cholesterol in check

While we know cholesterol is important for the body’s metabolic function, too much can be bad for you. Through careful management now, you can help reduce future health complications. There are several ways to help lower high cholesterol or keep in check, such as staying active and eating or avoiding certain foods.

1. Diet

The cholesterol in your diet comes mainly from animal products which are fat-rich such as eggs, meats and full fat dairy foods. Foods from plants don’t contain cholesterol. The best way to have healthy levels of cholesterol in your diet is through limiting your intake of foods that are high in saturated fats. Try to avoid fatty meats, processed meats like sausages and salami, chips, most takeaway and deep-fried foods and cakes, biscuits, and pastries.

The most important thing you can do is lead a healthy lifestyle, increasing the amount of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods you eat each day. Choose lean meat, and reduced-fat milk and yoghurts. Fish, either fresh or canned, is good at least twice a week, and replace butter and dairy blends with polyunsaturated margarines.  Soluble fibre and healthy fat foods such as nuts legumes, seeds and avocados are important to include.

For more information, read this great article by The Heart Foundation about healthy eating to protect your heart.

2. Physical activity

Physical activity can help raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol) levels and lower triglycerides. Aerobic or ‘cardio exercise’ and resistance training are particularly helpful.

The Australian guidelinesrecommend you  accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week. Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.  such as bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats or tasks involving lifting. Start with small realistic goals and time frames, before working up to the 150 to 300 minutes a week. See your GP before starting exercise for health advice suited to your individual circumstance. 

3. Medication

As mentioned, sometimes diet and exercise alone won’t help to lower cholesterol to safe levels particularly if genetics have played a role. Your doctor may therefore recommend medication to help lower your cholesterol and to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.   A common type of cholesterol-lowering medications is part of a group called statins. Statins are medicine that lower the level of LDL – the “bad” cholesterol in your blood – and help reduce the chance of heart attack or stroke for those considered high risk. While medications force blood LDL levels down, cell cholesterol levels, remain normal. Diet and exercise is still important, even while taking medication.

If you have any questions about your cholesterol, please make an appointment with us at Fiveways Surgery for more information and health advice. Other places you can seek help include the National Heart Foundation HeartLine advice line on 1300 362 787 and the Dieticians Association of Australia information line on 1800 812 942.