October is National Cholesterol Month. For many, the word cholesterol conjures up images of fat-clogged arteries and heart attacks. Perhaps you’ve been told that you have high cholesterol and need to take medication to rectify this or maybe a family member has suffered a heart attack or stroke and you may be concerned about cholesterol-rich foods you’re having.
But let’s get to the bottom of the question that is on everybody’s lips...
What actually is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance known as a lipid, that is crucial for our body to function. Inside of us there are 30 trillion cells and cholesterol is needed by every single one of them.
But wait, isn’t cholesterol bad?
We wouldn’t be able to function if we didn’t have cholesterol! Here are just a few of the essential functions of cholesterol:
- Cell walls. Without cholesterol, cell walls wouldn’t be able to maintain stability and cholesterol helps to keep everything in balance
- Hormones needed for blood sugar regulation, mineral balance, blood pressure regulation and sex hormones are all made using cholesterol
- The bile acids we need for digestion are made using cholesterol.
- Brain and nervous system function. The brain and nervous are packed full of cholesterol! 25% of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain.
- Healthy bone function. Sunlight shines directly on cholesterol in skin cell membranes and turns the cholesterol into
- Optimal immune function requires cholesterol. Vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system and cholesterol optimises levels of this crucial vitamin.
What about HDL and LDL?
Now you may be familiar with the terms HDL and LDL in reference to cholesterol but this doesn’t actually refer to cholesterol itself but to lipoproteins which are a mixture of lipids (fats) and proteins which allow cholesterol to travel around the bloodstream. Think of lipoproteins as taxis that cholesterol hitches a ride with. LDL carries the cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body and HDL ferries cholesterol back to the liver for disposal.
HDL is often referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is somewhat misleading because both are important.
So why is LDL known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol then?
When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, this can lead to a build up of cholesterol in the walls of arteries causing a narrowing and limit blood flow. When plaques break apart, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
So should I reduce cholesterol-rich foods?
Consuming cholesterol itself has little impact on the level of cholesterol in the blood. The biggest influence on blood cholesterol is actually the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet – not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food.
The current research suggests that although high cholesterol levels can be a part of cardiovascular disease development, it is not a direct cause and then are other more important factors to consider. That being said, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is important.
What if I’m diagnosed with high cholesterol?
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, there are a number of small, simple changes that can help. Before making any drastic changes, make sure you contact your GP.
- Your liver is the main organ which regulates the levels of lipids and cholesterol in the bloodstream so a liver dysfunction can lead to abnormal cholesterol metabolism. Bile is produced by the liver and can lead to reduced cholesterol clearance. So you need to ensure you’re supporting liver function and bile flow. Include artichoke, dandelion and turmeric.
- Modern diets are loaded with carbohydrates and refined sugars, which when eaten stimulate the production of insulin which increases the levels of triglycerides, which in turn impacts on the results of a cholesterol test. Wherever possible, try and reduce your intake of processed sugar and refined carbohydrates.
- Don’t be scared of fats. Opt for good-quality fats including oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds and where possible steer clear of trans fats such as fried foods like doughnuts and baked good including cakes, biscuits and crackers.
- Increase vegetables. A high intake of vegetables provides plenty of fibre which aids cholesterol elimination from the gut.
- Include plenty of antioxidants, including berries and green leafy vegetables, to prevent damage to fats in the body. Fats are very fragile and can easily be oxidised and oxidised cholesterol can be harmful.
- Exercise regularly. As little as 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week as shown to improve cholesterol. Find something you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like a chore – a walk in the evenings, cycle around the park or join a new class!
- Stay hydrated. Making sure you’re drinking enough water, approximately eight glasses a day, will help digestive and circulatory balance and support healthy cholesterol.