What is cholesterol?

High levels of cholesterol can have a big impact on heart health, which can pose a greater risk as we age. In this guide we look at what cholesterol is and it's role in the body, and well as ways to manage a healthy cholesterol level. 

Christophe Locatelli
Christophe Locatelli

What is cholesterol in simple terms?

Cholesterol isn’t inherently bad – it’s an essential substance. Our body needs this waxy, fat-like substance to build cells and make vitamins and hormones. However, it can become bad when there is too much.

Cholesterol is stored in the body in two different ways. Primarily, the liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs. Any other cholesterol is dietary cholesterol, mainly from food such as meat and dairy products.

Why do we need cholesterol?

Cholesterol is in every part of the body. It’s vital to how the body works, especially the brain, nerves, and skin. The three main jobs of cholesterol are making the outer layer of all cells, making vitamin D and steroid hormones to keep bones and muscles healthy, and it’s essential in the production of bile to digest any fat you eat.

What are the types of cholesterol?

You might have heard your Doctor talk about LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol; these two main cholesterol types have different effects on your body.

LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol

LDL cholesterol is often the type referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’. If the body stores a high amount of LDL levels, it can block the arteries and lead to health problems, including heart attacks, increasing your risk for heart disease, and other cardiovascular diseases and strokes. However, you do need some LDL concentrations in your blood to help repair cells.

HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein)

HDL cholesterol diverts cholesterol from the cells and into the liver. HDL then removes cholesterol from the body, keeping healthy cholesterol levels which helps prevent diseases; therefore, it is often referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol. High levels of non-HDL cholesterol are considered ‘bad cholesterol’.

What raises your cholesterol?

While meat and dairy products give your body the extra cholesterol it needs, they also contain high amounts of saturated and trans fats. These fats encourage the liver to make more cholesterol. Therefore, by consuming too much trans and saturated fat, your body will have more cholesterol than needed, leading to an unhealthy level.

Many oils such as palm, kernel and coconut also contain high amounts of saturated fat that increase LDL cholesterol or ‘bad’ cholesterol. These ingredients are often found in baked goods, so people are somewhat unaware of how much they consume.

There are also health conditions that can cause high cholesterol levels due to the reduction in the immune system and the damage to the function of different organs. These medical conditions include Diabetes, HIV, AIDS, Lupus and Hypothyroidism, and other genetic conditions.

Cholesterol can also reach unhealthy levels due to the medication taken for the conditions mentioned above and others such as cancer, high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms. Medication that prevents rejection after organ transplants may also contribute to a higher level of cholesterol.

Risk factors for high cholesterol

Lifestyle factors can increase your risk of high and unhealthy cholesterol levels. A major risk factor of high cholesterol is a diet high in saturated and trans fats. High amounts of saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of meats and full-fat dairy products, and Trans fats are usually found in processed packaged snacks and desserts.

A lack of exercise can also affect your chances of high cholesterol, as exercise helps boost your body’s level of HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

Smoking does the opposite of exercise and lowers your HDL level, and alcohol can increase your LDL cholesterol levels, the “bad” cholesterol.

Age is also a factor in high cholesterol.  When you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood.

What are the warning signs of high cholesterol?

Typically, high cholesterol doesn’t cause any symptoms. Knowing your blood cholesterol can be done through a simple blood test, or you won’t notice dangerous levels until high cholesterol causes an emergency event, such as a heart attack, coronary heart disease or a stroke.

High cholesterol levels can form a hard, fatty substance on the inside of the artery walls, which can narrow them, making them less flexible, less able to let blood flow through the blood vessels and cause a higher risk of blood clots. When a blood clot forms and blocks the narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can happen. A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to a part of your heart stops; similarly, a stroke is when blood flow to a part of your brain is stopped.

A doctor will advise you to check your cholesterol levels more regularly if you have a family history of high cholesterol or risk of heart disease, have high blood pressure, are overweight or smoke.

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How can I reduce my cholesterol at home?

You can adopt many lifestyle habits to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

An overall healthy lifestyle is advised to have normal levels of cholesterol. A balanced diet, which is low in salt and rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, can improve health. Reducing your intake of animal fats and other types of fat in moderation, such as the saturated fat found in coconut oil, may reduce your chances of high cholesterol. A limited alcohol intake has also been shown to reduce high cholesterol levels. Other examples of starting a healthy diet could be, eating fewer fried or processed meats like sausages, which are high in saturated fat, and more oily fatty fish, as they are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You could also swap high in saturated fat cakes for fruit and nuts, which have healthier levels of saturated fats.

A daily routine of exercise for at least 30 minutes, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting smoking may also help.