Friends eating pizza

Cholesterol is fatty substance within the walls of the cells of our bodies and in our blood, it is made in our liver and is also found in some foodstuffs too. Cholesterol is something which everyone has as it is produced naturally and is needed to help keep us healthy. However, if unhealthy levels of cholesterol are allowed to develop these can, overtime cause a narrowing of your arteries and lead to serious health issues such as a heart attack or stroke.

What are the different types of cholesterol?

There are two main types of cholesterol which are often referred to as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol:

LDL cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) – is often referred to as bad cholesterol as high levels in the blood can lead to health problems. LDL cholesterol’s role is to deliver cholesterol to the body’s cells where it’s needed. However, if there is too much it can build up, clogging arteries which can lead to health problems.

HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) – is often referred to as good cholesterol because it helps your body to stay healthy and prevent disease. HDL cholesterol contains high levels of protein, and very little cholesterol. Its job is to carry cholesterol back to the liver and away from the cells, so that it can be broken down and removed from the body.

Having increased levels of cholesterol in your blood can lead to a number of health-related issues. As levels of cholesterol increase in the body it can start to attach to the walls of your arteries. Over time fatty areas which are known as plaques can form, these then become harder with time which both narrows the arteries and makes them stiffer. This process is called atherosclerosis.

Narrowed arteries

Depending on the site in the body where this occurs, a range of serious health issues can arise such as coronary artery disease (if the blood vessels to the heart are affected), stroke (if it is the blood vessels to the brain) and peripheral vascular disease (if the blood vessels to the legs are affected).

Blood clots

Clots can form over the fatty, hardened parts of the arteries. These clots have the potential to block the artery completely, restricting the flow of blood. If parts of the clot break away and become lodged in an artery or vein in another part of the body then, depending on where exactly they lodge, these can cause a heart attack or stroke.

What raises your cholesterol?

Some people are genetically predisposed towards having higher levels of cholesterol than others. Women naturally have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men, and their cholesterol levels may rise during the menopause. Although these factors are mostly out of your control, you can do the following things to reduce your chances of increased cholesterol levels:

  • Eat less saturated fat
  • Stop smoking
  • Be more active
  • Reduce the amount of body fat, especially around your middle.

Eat less saturated fat

Many people in the UK eat too much saturated fat in foods such as:

  • Meat pies, sausages and fatty cuts of meat
  • Butter, ghee and lard
  • Cream
  • Hard cheese
  • Cakes and biscuits.

Eating foods that contain unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat can actually help reduce cholesterol levels.

Try to replace foods containing saturated fats with small amounts of foods high in unsaturated fats, such as:

  • Oily fish like mackerel and salmon
  • Almonds and cashew nuts
  • Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
  • Avocados
  • Rapeseed, vegetable , sunflower, olive, corn and walnut oils and spreads.

Stop smoking

Stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do to help lower your cholesterol and improve your overall health. Within days of quitting, your health will begin to improve and within a year, your risk of heart disease will be halved.

Giving up smoking has never been easy, but with support you are four times more likely to quit. Take a look at our guidance on quitting or speak to your GP.

Be more active

An active lifestyle can also help to lower your cholesterol level. Activities can range from walking and cycling to more vigorous exercise, such as running and energetic dancing.

Doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week can improve your cholesterol levels.

Moderate aerobic activity means you’re working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat.

Should I get a cholesterol test?

Because high cholesterol usually doesn’t have any symptoms it can be difficult to know if you have it, the first sign could be a heart attack. There are many causes of high cholesterol, including lifestyle and genes, so you could be young and fit but still have high cholesterol. Your GP surgery will be able to carry out a simple blood test to determine your cholesterol level, and advise on any actions required as a result.

How can I reduce my cholesterol levels?

Your GP may prescribe drugs known as statins to help reduce your cholesterol level. These medicines can help lower your cholesterol but they are usually offered to people who have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease or another cardiovascular disease, or whose personal or family medical history suggests they’re likely to develop it during the next ten years. Like any drug, they can cause side effects and need to be prescribed with care. Some patients develop unpleasant muscle aches with statin drugs meaning that they might need to be discontinued. For most other people, the first way to tackle high cholesterol is by making changes to your diet and getting more active. For example:

1. Change what you eat

2. Exercise more

3. Reduce alcohol intake

4. Stop smoking.

For further information and advice

Visit your GP for further advice and to arrange a cholesterol test. If you’re aged 40 to 74, you can get your cholesterol checked as part of an NHS Health Check.

Heart UK provides expert support, education and influencing services to healthcare professionals and people with concerns about cholesterol.

Cholesterol helpline 0345 450 5988