Cholesterol is a fatty substance or lipid that plays a vital role in a healthy body. It is an important part of the walls of cells that make up the body's tissues and it is used to produce the body's hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and corticosteroids.
Although cholesterol is important for health, it is recognised that too high a level of cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attacks and stroke. Health experts recommend a cholesterol level at least less than 5mmol/l.
- If your cholesterol level is 5-6.4mmol/l, you have mildly elevated cholesterol levels
- If your levels are 6.5-7.8mmol/l, you have moderately elevated levels
- If you have levels above 7.8mmol/l, you have very highly elevated levels.
The most common causes of high cholesterol levels in the blood are too much saturated fat in the diet, being overweight and lack of exercise. Too much saturated fat leads to an increased production of cholesterol by the liver. Saturated fats are found in meat, in meat products such as burgers, sausages and pies, in hard cheese, butter, lard, coconut oil and palm oil. Other sources of saturated fats are less obvious as these fats are often used in the manufacture of processed foods, pastries and cakes.
Some people have high cholesterol levels as a result of an under active thyroid gland, or chronic kidney failure, or alcohol abuse - About 1 in 500 people have high cholesterol levels because of an inherited disorder called familial hypercholesterolaemia.
Elevated cholesterol is not a disease in itself, but it does increase the risk of developing other serious diseases such as coronary heart disease and strokes. Excess cholesterol becomes deposited in the walls of the arteries in lumps called plaques. These plaques narrow the arteries, obstruct the flow of blood and increase the chances of a blood clot or thrombosis developing. The circulation of blood to important organs such as the heart and brain is first restricted as the arteries narrow and then may be stopped altogether if a blood clot should block the artery. If this happens in the blood vessels supplying the heart, the coronary blood vessels, the person may first suffer from angina (chest pain) then later have a heart attack. If the circulation is restricted to the brain, the person may first suffer mild strokes or TIAs (transient ischaemic attacks) or a major stroke that can result in paralysis.
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A high cholesterol level is now recognised as one of the main risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke, the risks increasing the higher the cholesterol level. When other risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking, high fat diet, lack of exercise and overweight are present, the risks are even greater. Most people with high cholesterol do not experience any obvious symptoms. In fact, the first signs of an underlying problem might be chest pain, heart attack or stroke. That is why it is important to have your cholesterol levels measured and your other risk factors assessed.For anyone looking to achieve good cholesterol levels, some simple lifestyle changes are important.
- Reduce the amount of saturated fats in the diet
- Eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Stop smoking
- Take regular exercise.
- A small amount of unsaturated fats such as oily fish (herring, mackerel, salmon), avocados, nuts and olive oil into your diet helps reduce cholesterol levels.
If, after a few months of these lifestyle changes, your cholesterol level has not fallen then cholesterol-lowering drug treatment may be prescribed by your doctor. The higher your risk of coronary heart disease, the more likely it is that your doctor will recommend cholesterol-lowering drugs.