Thirty years ago most people had never heard of it, let alone worried about it. But today, most of us have had our cholesterol checked and I have several discussions every day with patients about the importance of lowering theirs.
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made in your liver - that's where foods high in saturated fat are processed. The main 'bad' kind of cholesterol is called LDL cholesterol - raised LDL cholesterol is one of the biggest risk factors for heart attack and stroke, together known as cardiovascular disease. Most people should aim to have a total cholesterol level below 5millimols per litre (mmol/l) and an LDL below 3mmol/l. If you have some health conditions, stricter targets of below 4 for total cholesterol and below 2 for LDL are recommended.
Of course, other risk factors like high blood pressure and smoking play a part too. Fortunately, these days there's lots of advice and support available from the GP's surgery to help you tackle them all.
Too much of a good thing
Our bodies need cholesterol - it forms a vital part of the membranes of many of our cells. But if you have too much of it in your system, it gets laid down on the lining of your arteries as fatty 'plaques'. These can fur up your arteries, slowing down the blood supply. And if one of these plaques breaks open, a blood clot forms around it, stopping the blood flow completely. If the clot is in an artery supplying your heart and your brain, you know what happens.
Hurrah for HDL!
Bizarrely, one form of cholesterol, called HDL cholesterol, actually protects you against heart attack and stroke. It picks up 'bad' cholesterol from your arteries and carries it away to your liver to be disposed of. You can raise your HDL cholesterol with regular exercise and changes to your diet.
Most of the cholesterol in your body doesn't come from eating food high in cholesterol. Doctors used to think it did, and lectured patients for years about avoiding foods like prawns and egg yolks, which are high in cholesterol. That's all changed, so you can tuck in to your favourite omelette guilt-free.
Make the change
There are many changes you can make to your lifestyle which will help you reduce your cholesterol. The best thing is, they all add up, and together they can make a major difference. They include:
- Losing weight (losing 6 kg could cut your 'bad' LDL cholesterol by nearly 10%)
- Eating a Mediterranean-style diet with more fruit, vegetables and olive (or rape seed) oil, more fish and less red meat and high-fat dairy food
- Grilling instead of frying, cutting visible fat off meat and keeping cakes, biscuits, pastries and chocolates for treats
- Foods containing plant sterols (like Flora Pro-Activ®) or stanols (Benecol®) can lower your cholesterol by almost 10%
- Exercising regularly - aerobic exercise like brisk walking, dancing or swimming - is great.
Statins - should you?
It's hard to believe that statins were brand new under 30 years ago - now millions of people in the UK take them. They can dramatically cut your risk of cardiovascular disease if you have type 2 diabetes or have already had a heart attack or stroke, and it's recommended that pretty much everyone in these groups should take them. For other people, statins are recommended if you have other risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure or raised cholesterol levels. If your risk is borderline, you may be able to reduce it without medications, by making changes to your lifestyle, so you can avoid taking statins. In fact, lifestyle changes can help most risk factors apart from being male and getting older - those you can't change, no matter how you try!
Side effects - what should I do?
Most people feel well on statins, but they can cause side effects like muscle aching, which can affect your quality of life. Speak to your GP who may be able to change you to a version which suits you better. If you have severe symptoms, don't delay in seeking help.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.