Cholesterol: The Silent Killer?

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a natural fatty substance in your blood, which is required to keep the cells in our body healthy. There are two sources of cholesterol: it’s produced in the liver but is also found in some foods from animals (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy). Cholesterol only becomes an issue when we have too much of it. The liver makes all the cholesterol our body needs but foods that are high in dietary fat can also trigger the liver to produce more cholesterol.

Why do we need cholesterol?

Cholesterol is crucial for the health function of our organs and several metabolic processes. It is used to help build the structure of cell membranes, produce certain hormones and vitamins and maintain an efficient metabolism.

What is high cholesterol and what causes it?

When there is too much cholesterol (high cholesterol) in the blood, it starts to clog up the arteries and the risk of developing certain health conditions increases. Heart disease and stroke are both associated with high cholesterol.

High cholesterol is usually caused by a poor diet and eating too many fatty foods, not exercising regularly, being overweight, smoking and alcohol consumption. However, it can also run in families.

Different types of cholesterol explained

There are two main types of cholesterol:
— Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) 
— High-density lipoprotein (HDL)

LDL cholesterol is sometimes referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ because, while we all need some of it in our blood, too much of it leads to the creation of plaque, which is what can clog up the arteries and cause health issues.

HDL cholesterol is often called ‘good cholesterol’ because it carries LDL cholesterol away from your cells, back to your liver to be broken down. From there, the liver uses it to make bile acids which are released into the intestines to help with digestion and break down the fats in food.

The combined amount of LDL and HDL cholesterol in our blood is referred to as total cholesterol.

How do you test your cholesterol levels?

A cholesterol test gives you important information about your risk of developing heart disease. If your test shows you have high cholesterol, you can take steps to lower it. This may decrease your risk of developing heart problems in the future.

The Newfoundland Cholesterol Test measures the level of total cholesterol in the blood and provides three medical risk groups: high, borderline high and desirable. The NHS recommends that healthy adults should have a cholesterol reading in line with the following:

— Total cholesterol: below 5mmol/L
— HDL: above 1.0mmol/L for men or above 1.2mmol/L for women
— LDL: below 4mmol/L

How to manage/lower your cholesterol

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels can usually be achieved just by making a few lifestyle changes. The easiest way to lower cholesterol is to eat less fatty food, particularly those containing saturated fats. If possible, swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats, which can be found in foods like avocados, olives, nuts and oily fish.

Taking regular exercise is also crucial to reducing cholesterol. The NHS recommends that adults aim to complete at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise each week.

Limiting alcohol intake and quitting smoking are also important. Guidelines suggest drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol and having several drink-free days each week, as well as avoiding binge drinking.