Contributing Author: The Tortoise
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol to the cells in your body which need it. If there is too much cholesterol for your cells to use, this excess cholesterol can build up in the artery walls, leading to plaque and disease of the arteries. Plaque is a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible, resulting in a condition called atherosclerosis. Plaque can also break open and cause blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery to either the brain or the heart, the result is a stroke or a heart attack. Therefore, too much LDL cholesterol is unhealthy, and LDL is known as 'bad' cholesterol for this reason. A diet high in saturated fat and trans fat raises LDL cholesterol. As a general guide, LDL levels should be 3 mmol/L or less for healthy adults, and 2 mmol/L or less for those at high risk.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from your cells and arteries back to your liver, where it is broken down and passed from the body. One-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Low levels of HDL cholesterol have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, while healthy levels of HDL cholesterol may protect against cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, HDL is regarded as 'good' protective cholesterol, and higher levels are better. In general, HDL levels should be above 1 mmol/L. Lower levels can increase the risk of heart disease.
So Why Should You Lower Your Cholesterol?
There is strong evidence that high cholesterol increases the risk of:
- Artherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries from plaque buildup
- Heart attack
- Transient ischaemic attack (TIA), or a 'mini stroke'
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or the narrowing of arteries supplying blood to the legs, from plaque buildup
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Many factors can play a part in causing high cholesterol. Lifestyle, underlying conditions and 'fixed' factors which cannot be changed, all contribute.
Lifestyle factors contributing to high cholesterol:
- An unhealthy diet, particularly one high in saturated fat and trans fats.
- Obesity. Being overweight can lead to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, and lower levels of HDL cholesterol.
- Lack of exercise or physical activity. This can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol.
- Smoking. Cigarettes contain a chemical called acrolein which stops HDL from carrying cholesterol from fatty deposits to the liver, which can lead to artherosclerosis.
Underlying conditions contributing to high cholesterol:
- Diabetes or high blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
Fixed factors contributing to high cholesterol:
- A family history of heart disease or stroke.
- An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia, which can cause high cholesterol in someone even if they eat healthily.
- A family history of a cholesterol-related condition, such as having a parent, brother or sister with familial hypercholesterolaemia.
- Age. The older you are, the greater the likelihood of artherosclerosis.
- Ethnicity. People of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan descent are at increased risk of having a heart attack.
- Sex. Males are more likely to have heart attacks than females.
Consequently, lowering your cholesterol levels will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve your health. High cholesterol is often known as the 'silent killer' because there can be little or no indication of it. It is important to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly, and to do as much as you can to keep your cholesterol at a healthy level. Here are 6 tips on how to lower your cholesterol:
- Get expert advice. Your doctor can help you with a plan for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.
- Eat healthily. Eat less saturated fat and trans fat. Increase your intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds and fibre.
- Give up smoking. Your HDL levels will improve as a direct result.
- Exercise. Physical activity lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol.
- Take your medications. If your doctor has prescribed medicine to lower your cholesterol, do not forget to take it.
- Try supplements. Fish oil, krill oil, fibre and soy protein supplements can lower LDL cholesterol. Ask your doctor if supplements may help you.
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High cholesterol, National Health Service
The myth of dietary cholesterol, Heart UK
Tips to keep your cholesterol in check, WebMD
What is cholesterol?, National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute
What your cholesterol levels mean, American Heart Association
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