Cholesterol is both our friend and foe - at normal levels, it is an essential substance for the body's normal functioning, but if levels in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger that puts us at risk of a heart attack.
In this article we will take you through what cholesterol is, the causes and symptoms of high cholesterol and how health professionals diagnose the condition. We will also discuss the available treatments for high cholesterol and changes that you can make to help reduce your cholesterol levels.
Contents of this article:
You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on cholesterol
Here are some key facts about cholesterol. Find more detail and supporting information in the article.
- Cholesterol is an essential substance that is produced by the body but is also ingested from animal-derived foods.
- The greatest risk factors for high cholesterol are modifiable lifestyle choices - diet and exercise.
- A predisposition for high cholesterol levels can be inherited through the genetic condition, familial hypercholesterolemia.
- Having high cholesterol does not produce any symptoms in itself.
- Everyone should have their blood cholesterol levels tested once every 5 years.
- First-line ways to reduce cholesterol involve lifestyle changes.
- If lifestyle changes are unsuccessful or cholesterol levels are very high, lipid-lowering drugs such as statins may be prescribed.
- High cholesterol levels are an important contributor in the calculation of an individual's risk of having a heart attack within the next ten years.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is found in every cell of the body and has important natural functions. It is manufactured by the body but can also be taken in from food. It is waxy and fat-like in appearance.1-3
Cholesterol is oil-based and so does not mix with the blood, which is water-based. It is therefore carried around the body in the blood by lipoproteins.1-3
The parcels of cholesterol are carried by two types of lipoprotein:2
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL - cholesterol carried by this type is known as 'bad' cholesterol)
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL - cholesterol carried by this type is known as 'good' cholesterol).
Cholesterol has four main functions, without which we could not live. It:1,3
- Contributes to the structure of cell walls
- Makes up digestive bile acids in the intestine
- Allows the body to produce vitamin D
- Enables the body to make certain hormones.
The support charity for people with high cholesterol, HEART UK, has identified "six super foods" that actively lower cholesterol levels:
- Soya foods (15g a day) - soya milk, soya desserts, soya meat alternatives, soya nuts, edamame beans and tofu
- Nuts - a handful a day
- Oats and barley - providing the soluble fiber beta glucan
- Plant sterols/stanols - found in a wide range of foods
- Fruits and vegetables
- Foods rich in unsaturated fats - for example, canola and vegetable oils.
Go to the charity's website for more information about foods that are good for cholesterol levels. HEART UK also lists foods that are bad for cholesterol levels:
- Hard margarines
- Fatty and processed meat
- Dairy fats.
On the next page we look at the causes of high cholesterol, the signs and symptoms and how healthcare professionals test for the condition. On the final page we discuss the treatments available to those suffering with high cholesterol.