We have all heard this term before, from our doctors, our friends and families and even on some food advertisements and packaging. But what does it really mean?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol, put simply, is the name of a fat-like lipid that is produced in the liver and is necessary for the production of some hormones, cell membranes and even Vitamin D. It is therefore not necessarily bad – in fact it is classed as an essential fat. It is hydrophobic (doesn’t dissolve in water) so can’t travel through the blood unaided. This is relevant as cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream on molecules called lipoproteins – some of which are bad and some of which are good.
Different Types of Cholesterol Lipoproteins.
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) Cholesterol = this is known as the ‘bad cholesterol’ and can build up in the walls of your arteries affecting blood flow and leading to vascular problems such as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease that involves the build-up of plaque (deposits of fat, calcium and other substances found in the blood) on the inside walls of your arteries that can harden over time and block the arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes. Risk factors that increase your LDL cholesterol level include:
- A diet high in saturated fats (beef, lamb, poultry, pork, butter, cream, milk etc)
- Lack of exercise
- Alcohol consumption
- Age – cholesterol levels tend to increase with age
- Genetics – some people are predisposed to high cholesterol levels
High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL) Cholesterol = this is known as the ‘good cholesterol’ and works by sweeping up all the LDL cholesterol in your arteries and bringing it to the liver to be metabolised. Exercise and physical activity help to raise the amount of HDL cholesterol in your body, as well as eating healthier (less saturated fats), losing weight, quitting smoking etc.
Testing for Cholesterol
Cholesterol levels are tested by what is known as a total cholesterol test, which is carried out via a finger-prick lipid test or a standard blood test taken by a doctor or nurse. Four things are examined in this test and I’ve included their optimum ranges below (according to the NHS), but please be aware that these can vary between age groups.
- Total Cholesterol levels (less than 5mmol/L)
- LDL Cholesterol (less than 3mmol/L)
- HDL Cholesterol (at least 1mmol/L)
- Triglycerides (less than 2.3mmol/L)
This is a type of fat found in the blood. After you finish a meal, your body converts any excess calories that aren’t converted into energy into triglycerides to be stored in fat cells. Triglycerides levels are therefore a very good indicator of body fat levels.
There are no symptoms for having high cholesterol until it progresses to the stage of atherosclerosis and your blood flow becomes restricted in some of your major arteries leading to chest pain, heart attack or stroke. For this reason, most of your GPs will do annual blood tests, running a total cholesterol test on your blood to monitor your cholesterol levels and let you know if they are high or low. If you are worried, there are home testing kits for cholesterol which involves you pricking your finger and testing the blood on a piece of paper which will change to a certain colour representing your levels. These can be found on Amazon or you can ask your pharmacist about them.
If you do require more information:
- You can access these websites: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/high-cholesterol/ or https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
- Alternatively, you can contact your local GP, public health nurse or pharmacist for information.
This article was intended as an information piece and should not be taken as medical advice. If you or someone you know suspects that they have a condition, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible.