Having high cholesterol is a major health concern for many Australians. But what exactly is it? What causes it and what can you do to keep it low? Let’s take a look.
We’ve all heard about cholesterol, and having high cholesterol is a major health concern for many Australians. Despite this, many do not do know exactly what it is, what causes it, or what we can do in your daily lives to keep cholesterol levels down.
To understand what high cholesterol is, it helps to have a grasp on the basics of cholesterol, the difference between good and bad cholesterol, and what causes levels to be high. So let’s dive right in.
What Is Cholesterol?
When people think cholesterol, they often think of a poor diet and minimal exercise. And in many ways they’re right. But what many don’t know is that cholesterol is a substance that occurs naturally in our bodies, and is crucial for many bodily processes, such as the production of hormones, breaking down and digesting the food we eat, and for building and maintaining cell structures.
Cholesterol is an insoluble waxy substance that is carried around the body in the blood. Our liver naturally produces all the cholesterol we need, but we also ingest it through the food we eat. And therein lies one of the key contributors to high cholesterol. But it is slightly more complex than just a matter of eating less cholesterol-rich food. Have you heard of good and bad cholesterol? Well, this is where it gets a little more interesting.
Good and Bad Cholesterol
At a structural level, cholesterol is a package of fats and proteins, collectively known as a lipoprotein. There are two main types of lipoproteins, high-density and low-density, commonly known as good and bad cholesterol respectively. The density of a lipoprotein is dictated by how much fat (lipid) and protein it contains.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – Bad cholesterol: LDLs are lower in density because they have a higher fat-to-protein ratio. Although it is referred to as bad cholesterol, our body still needs LDL to transport cholesterol from the liver to parts of the body that need it. However, an excess of LDL in the bloodstream can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries (called plaque).
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – Good cholesterol: HDLs are smaller and denser than LDLs and contain comparatively low fat-to-protein ratio, with a core comprised mainly of cholesterol. HDL is what collects excess cholesterol and transports to the liver to be broken down and removed. It can be considered as a protective mechanism in your bloodstream.
Knowing the difference between HDL and LDL is very important for understanding high cholesterol. You can read more about it here.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body and also contribute to high cholesterol. They are also produced naturally in the body, and like cholesterols, are also found in the food we eat.
Triglycerides are what make up the fat content of lipoproteins, and therefore high triglyceride levels in your body can contribute to the buildup of plaque and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
What Is High Cholesterol?
So, with all these different components to consider, what exactly is high cholesterol? Well, it’s all to do with your total blood cholesterol.
A cholesterol test will assess your blood to get a reading of good and bad cholesterol levels. Your total blood cholesterol consists of your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your total triglycerides. According to the Better Health Channel, the recommendation from health authorities in Australia is for healthy people to have a total blood cholesterol level of no more than 5.5mmol/L. Any more than this is considered high.
In a 2013 health survey on cholesterol, the Australian Bureau of Statistics define abnormal levels of each component as the following:
HDL – Generally speaking, the higher this number the better. Less than 1.0 mmol/L for men and less than 1.3 mmol/L for women is considered abnormal.
LDL – Generally speaking, the lower this number the better. LDL cholesterol greater than or equal to 3.5 mmol/L is considered abnormal.
Triglycerides – Your triglyceride levels should be below 8.3 mmol/L.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
These numbers are all well and good, but what causes cholesterol levels to be high? There are two main reasons.
First of all, high cholesterol can be inherited. This is a condition known as familial hypercholesterolaemia, which is caused by a gene mutation. Often high blood cholesterol that has been inherited is asymptomatic, which means people may not realise they have it. Particularly those that lead a healthy lifestyle may not think they are at risk of having high cholesterol, and as such can go by untreated. If you have a history of high blood cholesterol or heart disease in your family it is a good idea to get a blood test from your doctor, even if you eat well and get plenty of exercise. Having familial hypercholesterolaemia may require you take measures such as complimentary medicine to help lower your cholesterol.
The second main reason is lifestyle-related and is far more common. Diet is the most significant contributor to high cholesterol. As the body naturally produces all the cholesterol we need, it is the food we eat that accounts for excess cholesterol found in our blood; in particular, those that are high in saturated fat and trans fats.
Some foods, such as eggs, liver and kidney, contain what is known as dietary cholesterol. While consumption of these foods shouldn’t be in excess, they do not have a huge impact on blood cholesterol and shouldn’t be a cause for too much concern.
What you need to watch out for is those foods which impact your LDL and HDL levels. Saturated fat intake influences your LDL cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet and should be limited as much as possible. These include fatty meats, full cream dairy products, processed meats, deep fried food, processed cakes, biscuits and pastries.
Trans fatty acids (known simply as trans fats) influence both your LDL and HDL levels and should also be limited as much as possible. Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil and are found in some fried or processed foods. Some foods contain both saturated fat and trans fat and these should be eliminated from your diet completely.
Exercise is another contributing factor to high cholesterol. During physical exertion, the triglycerides (fatty content in lipoproteins) in your body are consumed for energy. The lower your triglyceride level, the better. And therefore it is important to exercise regularly to keep these levels under control. Physical activity also can help you raise your HDL cholesterol level – and remember HDL is what collects excess cholesterol and transports to the liver to be broken down and removed.
Other factors that can contribute to high cholesterol include smoking, excessive drinking, and your sex and age.
How Can You Manage High Cholesterol
So then, how can you manage high cholesterol?
Observation: Having your cholesterol checked regularly is very important for keeping it under control. This is especially important if other risk factors for cardiovascular disease are present, such as high blood pressure.
Diet: Ensuring consumption of saturated fats and trans fats is kept to a minimum is very important. This means excluding particular foods like those mentioned above from your diet, choosing leaner cuts of meat, and eating more plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits and legumes, and grainy foods.
Exercise: After diet, exercise is the most important factor for keeping cholesterol down. This doesn’t have to be intense or overly strenuous. Moderate exercise such brisk walking, jogging or tennis, combined with a nutritious diet, is a great way to keep cholesterol levels down.
Other Lifestyle Factors: Choosing to be smoke-free, limiting alcohol consumption and leading a generally healthy lifestyle is very important for minimising the risk of high cholesterol.
Complimentary Medication: If you have high cholesterol, you may choose to take complementary medicine in combination with a healthy diet and exercise. They can help increase HDL and lower LDL, as well as reduce the oxidation of LDL-c.
RAYDEL Policosanol is a listed complementary medicine used for cholesterol management. Policosanol 10 may assist in reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol (LDL-C) and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol (HDL-C) within the normal cholesterol range, reducing LDL-C/HDL-C ratio within the normal cholesterol range, and reducing LDL-C oxidation.
Find out more information here.