October is National Cholesterol Month, encouraging you to make small changes to your lifestyle for better health.
Cholesterol plays a critical role in your body's functioning. It’s a waxy, fat-like substance that your body needs for building cell membranes, producing hormones, and synthesising vitamin D.
It is transported through the bloodstream in two main forms: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol because high levels of it can lead to the buildup of plaque in arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, HDL cholesterol is known as ‘good’ cholesterol, as it helps transport cholesterol away from your cells, reducing the risk of heart disease.
Over 50% of the adult UK population currently suffer with elevated cholesterol. And you have an equal likelihood of having elevated cholesterol regardless of gender.
We explore the main risks of high cholesterol and how you can make small changes to your habits to decrease your risk.
Dangers of high cholesterol
The biggest risks from high cholesterol are for your cardiovascular health.
With an elevated cholesterol level, you are more likely to have or develop:
- Heart disease, as a result of reduced blood flow through LDL cholesterol plaques narrowing your arteries.
- A stroke, due to plaques forming in the arteries to the brain.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure), making your heart work harder to keep blood circulating.
- Peripheral Artery Disease, which occurs when plaque reduces blood flow to extremities, such as the legs. This can cause numbness, pain, tingling and permanent tissue damage.
- A heart attack, due to blocked blood flow to the heart muscle, usually because of a clot on a plaque in a coronary artery.
- Chest pain (angina), which can be a warning sign of underlying heart disease.
- A reduced quality of life, as a result of fatigue, shortness of breath and lower stamina.
- Increases in other health problems, such as diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
You may need to be treated with:
- Invasive procedures, such as opening narrowed arteries or bypass surgery.
- Medication, such as statins.
- Lifestyle changes, such as diet, exercise and stopping smoking.
Fortunately, early intervention and lifestyle changes are really effective at helping lower your cholesterol and manage your risks.
Cholesterol-lowering habit changes
High cholesterol could be caused by things you can control like lifestyle habits. Or things you can’t, like age and family history. Keeping on top of the things you can control with simple habit changes can help to lower your risk of heart and circulatory disease.
Food choices are one of the best ways to manage your cholesterol. Include plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fibre-rich foods and lean proteins. Different foods can increase the ‘good’ cholesterol or lower the ‘bad’.
Try to eat more:
- oily fish, like mackerel and salmon
- whole grains, such as wholewheat bread or brown rice
- unsaturated fats, such as avocados
- nuts and seeds
- fruits and vegetables
- fibre-rich foods, such as lentils, beans, oats and seeds
Try to eat less:
- meat pies, sausages and fatty meat, such as mince that isn’t lean
- butter, lard and ghee
- cream and hard cheese, like cheddar
- cakes and biscuits
- food that contains coconut oil or palm oil
- high-salt snacks
Getting more active is a key part of managing your cholesterol. Exercise increases your ‘good cholesterol’ and improves your overall cardiovascular health. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week for the best benefits.
Smoking increases ‘bad cholesterol’ and lowers ‘good cholesterol’, increasing your risk of heart attacks and stroke. Stopping smoking will reduce your cholesterol and the risks that come with that.
Cutting down on alcohol will help your liver to work better at removing bad cholesterol. It may also improve your heart health in other ways by helping you lose weight and lower your blood pressure.
How can you get started?
Experts recommend you pick just one or two habits you’d like to change, rather than changing everything at once! Then, once you’re happy with the changes you’ve made, pick another one or two you’d like to add. This way, the changes don’t feel overwhelming and they are much more manageable.