Have you been diagnosed with high cholesterol?
Or does a member of your family have high cholesterol?
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood and is one of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease.
You need a certain amount of cholesterol for your body cells to function and to produce important hormones.
Cholesterol is made mainly in the liver and the body normally produces enough of it to maintain a healthy level of blood cholesterol.
Blood cholesterol can increase due to inherited problems or from eating too much saturated (animal) fat and foods from the top of the food pyramid.
It is ok to eat foods that contain cholesterol in moderation as part of a balanced diet. However, if you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol you may have to limit the intake of these foods.
If there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it can stick to the inner lining of your arteries and form plaque. Having high cholesterol is one of the modifiable risk factors which increases your risk of getting heart disease and stroke.
The build-up of plaque in your arteries is called atherosclerosis and over time it causes narrowing of the blood vessels. This is the main underlying cause of heart disease.
If a coronary artery, which supplies blood to the heart muscle, becomes completely blocked, the heart muscle becomes damaged. This is known as a heart attack.
If an artery to the brain becomes completely blocked, it causes brain damage. This is called a stroke.
Good vs bad cholesterol
There are two main types of cholesterol – HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) and LDL cholesterol (low density lipoprotein).
HDL cholesterol is called good cholesterol because it helps to clear up cholesterol left in your arteries and transports it to your liver where it is broken down and passed out of your body. Regular physical activity can help increase your HDL level. A high level of HDL cholesterol is protective against having a heart attack or a stroke.
LDL is called bad cholesterol because it sticks to the inner lining of your arteries causing them to become narrow. This reduces the blood supply to your heart or brain. Eating too many foods high in saturated fat can increase your LDL cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
How is high cholesterol diagnosed?
If a family member has high cholesterol, heart disease or had a stroke, it is very important to ask your doctor to test your cholesterol levels.
If you already had a cardiac event such a heart attack it is recommended that you keep your LDL below 1.4mmol/L. You may have been prescribed a medication (called a statin) to help lower your LDL cholesterol in addition to any required lifestyle changes.
How do you manage high cholesterol?
It is recommended to have regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks with your GP.
To maintain a healthy heart and normal cholesterol levels the following is recommended:
- Take any prescribed medications
- Eat more fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods
- Eat less fatty foods
- Eat fish twice a week including oily fish
- If you smoke, it is strongly advised that you stop
- Be a healthy weight (benefits to your cardiovascular health can be seen with a 10-15% weight loss over 6 months)
- Be more physically active (aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, 5 days a week)
- Drink less alcohol
- Learn to relax and manage stress
Written by James Murray, Cardiac Physiotherapist.