The truth about cardiovascular disease and cholesterol

Cardiovascular disease is a term which relates to a number of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. This can include common cardiovascular conditions such as angina, heart attackheart failure, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

The consequences of high cholesterol

Your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is significantly increased if you have high levels of cholesterol in your blood. It does this by infiltrating the walls of arteries creating stiff, disruptive plaques that can then rupture causing potentially life-threatening blood clots. A clot in the arteries supplying blood to the heart can lead to a heart attack. If a clot or rupture occurs in the brain it can cause a stroke.

Angina occurs where one or more of the heart's arteries are sufficiently narrowed to limit the supply of oxygen to the heart's own tissues. This causes discomfort, heaviness, tightness, pressure, burning, numbness, aching or tingling in the chest, back, neck, throat, jaw or arms. This pain intensifies as the heart requires more oxygen, (for example during exercise) and can lessen or even disappear when you are relaxed.

A heart attack, also known as an MI, or myocardial infarction, occurs when one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart's own tissues becomes suddenly blocked by a blood clot causing some of the surrounding tissues to die from oxygen deprivation.

A stroke occurs when an artery in the brain either blocks or ruptures causing damage or death to the surrounding tissues. There are two types of stroke: one is caused by a blocking of an artery and the other caused by an artery rupturing, which leads to bleeding into the brain. The vast majority of strokes, around 85%, are caused by a blood clot blocking an artery. This is known as an ischaemic stroke, and it will lead to a reduced supply of oxygenated blood to the surrounding tissues.

The other 15 percent of strokes are known as haemorrhagic strokes and occur when an artery that carries blood to the brain suddenly ruptures. This is often due to a weak spot in the artery wall caused by arteriosclerosis.

How to improve your cholesterol levels

Although there are medications available to help lower cholesterol, it can normally be controlled very effectively by making some prudent lifestyle changes.

If you have high cholesterol, you may want to consider some of the following lifestyle strategies to improve your cholesterol profile:

Physical activity

Regular exercise can have a dual effect on your cholesterol levels by reducing your TC level and increasing your HDL level. You don't have to exercise hard either - moderate-intensity activities such as brisk walking, active gardening and cycling can significantly improve your cholesterol profile.

A minimum of half an hour of brisk activity - either continuously or in smaller intervals - on at least five days each week will be enough to produce results.

Diet

The three main areas of your diet to focus on for healthy cholesterol levels are fats, fibre and plant sterols.

Fats

All types of fat affect your cholesterol profile. Some of these have a negative impact, while others can actually be good for you.

Saturated fats increase both your TC and LDL levels so minimising these in your diet is the first step. Saturated fats are most commonly found in foods of animal origin, especially red meats and dairy products. They are often solid and visible at room temperature, but also hidden in many foods.

Trans fats , like saturated fats, can significantly affect your cholesterol profile by raising your levels of both unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as lowering your level of healthy HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are typically hidden in margarines and commercially baked and fried products.

Unsaturated fats on the other hand will help to improve your cholesterol levels by reducing TC and LDL levels and also increasing your healthy HDL cholesterol level. Good sources of unsaturated fats include olive, sunflower and safflower oils, oily fish, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds.

Fibre

Foods high in dietary fibre - especially soluble fibre - are particularly good at reducing TC and LDL levels. Great sources of soluble fibre include oats, barley, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables and beans and pulses.

Plant sterols and stanols

Stanols and sterols are natural substances that are sometimes added to certain foods such as yoghurt, orange juice and margarines during production to help reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream during digestion.

Regular consumption of these products can be very effective at reducing your TC and LDL levels whilst maintaining your level of healthy HDL cholesterol.

Alcohol

Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with slightly increased HDL levels - but the benefits are not strong enough to recommend alcohol consumption as a way of managing your cholesterol levels if you don't already drink.

If you do drink, then make sure you stay well within the recommended limits. Drinking at higher levels can significantly worsen your cholesterol profile as well as increase your risk of other serious health conditions.

Smoking

The message here is simple - if you smoke, stop.

As well as being strongly associated with cancer and lung disease, cigarette smoke contains a chemical called acrolein that compromises the great work that your HDL cholesterol does in cleaning up your arteries.

Smoking also damages the interior surfaces of the arteries making it easier for cholesterol plaques to form.