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Cholesterol Levels Explained

Whether it's high cholesterol or low cholesterol, do you actually know what it means and what the implications are? Read our simple guide below.

It's been in the news or you may have heard it from your Doctor, but all that sinks in is the need to keep it low and prevent heart attacks. But do you understand why cholesterol is so important and what having high levels actually means? Why not take a cholesterol test to check your levels now?

What is Cholesterol?

Ok put simply, cholesterol is a fat chemical called a 'Lipid' that's made by the cells in your body. Of all the cells throughout your body that make lipids, around 25% are made in your liver. You do need to have some cholesterol in your blood system in order to maintain your health.

Cholesterol is carried in your bloody stream by particles called "Lipoproteins". There are different lipoproteins, but of importance to cholesterol there are two key ones :

  • Low Density Lipoproteins
  • High Density Lipoproteins

Good & Bad Cholesterol

These two lipoproteins often get labelled as good and bad cholesterols - which we will explain.

High-Density Lipoprotein, or HDL Cholesterol is very good for you and in fact helps to break down the lipids that cause the body damage.

Low-Density Lipoprotein, or LDL Cholesterol is the 'bad cholesterol'. So called, as it is the main one that forms what's called "Atheroma".

Atheroma that form in your blood vessels, are small fatty lumps that develop and then increase in size making the arteries narrower. This is instrumental in causing cardiovascular diseases such as angina, strokes and vascular diseases.

The ratio of the two types to one another is what determines what is dangerous. You can find this out via a blood test. But in essence the higher the LDL Cholesterol level, the greater the risk to your health!

What Affects my Cholesterol Levels?

As cholesterol you eat in foods is not easily absorbed by the body, we're concerned with other factors as well as your diet. Your diet can certainly have an affect on the blood level of cholesterol, so if you want to keep it low, then keep the amount of fatty foods you eat to a minimum and eat those greens!

Lifestyle also plays a big part in your cholesterol levels. You can't always prevent atheroma from occurring as genetics plays a part. But there are definite lifestyle choices that affect your chances. You may also have a condition like an under active thyroid that means you are likely to suffer from high cholesterol levels.

What do High and Low Cholesterol Levels Indicate?

High cholesterol levels can lead to hardening and narrowing of your arteries, which in turn leads to cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks or strokes.

Very low cholesterol levels, those less than 160 mg, may prove to be as unhealthy as high levels. When you have very low levels, it can be termed "Hypocholesterolemia". These may indicate :

Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
Liver disease
Inadequate absorption of nutrients from the intestines
Poor metabolism

What Cholesterol Range Should I Aim For?

To gauge your levels, check out the following :

    ideal : "cholesterol level in the blood" less than 5mmol/l
    too high : between 5 and 6.4mmol/
    very high : between 6.5 and 7.8mmol/l
    extremely high  : above 7.8mmol/l

Key Factors

We all have some degree of susceptibility of atheroma, from high cholesterol, but we can also change things in the way we live.

Those factors over which you have complete control :

  • Smoking
  • No physical activity
  • Obesity
  • Eating too many fatty foods
  • Eating too much salt
  • Excess Alcohol

Those of which you may have some control :

  • Diabetes (weight gain)
  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
  • High Cholesterol Levels (see factors you control above)

Finally, some factors you have no control over :

  • You are male
  • You have family history of high cholesterol / blood pressure
  • How old you are - older means more likely to atheroma

What Kind of Diet Can Help Reduce Cholesterol Levels?

It's not really very helpful just to say a "healthy diet" but in truth, that's what you need to aim for. It is worth noting that whilst you may switch to a healthier diet and your cholesterol may come down, it will rarely be enough to reduce a person that has a high risk cardiovascular, to one that only has a low one. But it all helps!

So the pointers for a healthy diet are :

  • 5 - 8 portions of fresh fruit or veg a day
  • Each meal should be more than 50% starch-based (rice, wholegrain, potatoes, pasta)
  • Reduce the fatty foods to a minimum (cheese, cream, butter, fried foods)
  • Try and include fresh fish more than once a week
  • Reduce salt (try to add no salt to your food)
  • Meat-wise choose chicken over red meats

How Can I Lower High Cholesterol Level?

There's a number of ways, but a healthier lifestyle and eating habits will undoubtedly make a huge difference over time.

  • Try and limit your total fat intake to about 30% of your total daily calories. You also need to ensure that saturated fats are 5% or less of this total.
  • Increase the amount of fibre you ingest each day. From eating All bran to more vegetables at each meal, increase that total.
  • If you are even slightly overweight, cut the fat lardy! You must lose the weight.
  • In tandem with the overweight solution, tie it in with more exercise. Increase the amount of exercise you do!

Foods high in saturated fats MUST be avoided. Saturated means that these fats are solid at room temperature. However some vegetable oils have been hydrogenated, a chemical process which means that they also are in fact saturated.

Further Reading

NetDoctor - NetDoctor - Hypercholesterolaemia

Disease Proof - Cholesterol Levels

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