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All you need to know about cholesterol

October is National Cholesterol Month so we’re answering all of your cholesterol-related questions.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is one of several types of fat present in the body. It is essential for life and carried around the body by the blood. There are two sources of cholesterol. Some comes from the food that we eat, and the body makes its own cholesterol in the liver.

When you have a blood test and are told you have ‘high’ cholesterol, this is usually due to eating too much saturated fat, but can sometimes be caused due to a genetic condition where high cholesterol runs in the family.

What problems are caused by too much cholesterol?
High circulating cholesterol levels in the blood can cause several health problems but the most important of these is cardiovascular disease (heart and stroke problems). High cholesterol levels can cause fatty streaks to build up in blood vessels which can eventually block. The risks are greater in narrow vessels such as heart or coronary arteries and in the small blood vessels that supply the brain (cerebral arteries). If these arteries do get blocked you can suffer angina or a heart attack and in the case of a brain, a stroke.

The good news is that high cholesterol can be treated and by reducing it you will reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It is beneficial to reduce your cholesterol even if your cholesterol is within what is the “normal” range. In other words, reducing the amount of fatty foods you eat is beneficial to almost everyone providing it is part of a balanced and healthy diet.

How is high cholesterol treated?
The most important thing that you can do is to make changes to what you eat, specifically reducing the amount of saturated fatty acids in your diet. You should also increase the amount of physical activity you do. For most people, however, changing your diet and increasing your exercise will help significantly. If this is not enough to lower your cholesterol to normal, then your doctor may consider medication. A doctor will decide as to whether you need drug treatment by taking into account several other factors, including other medical conditions you may suffer from and your overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Cholesterol is found mainly in foods of animal origin, including dairy products, meat and poultry, but also in some fish. Changes in your diet do have to be long term to be of benefit and each individual needs to find several healthy foods which you are happy with. You are more likely to be successful with changes in your diet if you are able to sustain it in the long term. There are certain general changes that you can make to your diet which include:

  • The use of semi-skimmed or skimmed milk
  • Eating more oily fish (for example mackerel)
  • Cut down on cakes, sweets, chocolate ice-cream, biscuits and crisps
  • Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Consider switching from butter to unsaturated oil spreads such as olive oil
  • Consider changing from white to wholegrain bread, cereals, pasta and rice
  • Remove all visible fat from meat and skin from chicken

How will exercise make a difference?
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the levels of cholesterol and thereby reduce the risk of heart disease. Apart from this, exercise is also good for the joints, it lowers blood pressure, helps stress and reduces weight. To be successful you need to undertake an activity that you enjoy – do not force yourself to go to the gym if you do not like it! Swimming, walking, cycling or jogging are all effective. The important thing is to undertake the exercise regularly – 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day if you can. If you work in an office, using stairs rather than lifts or elevators can benefit you.

Whatever exercise you undertake you can be assured it is helping if it raises your heart rate which you can measure by feeling your pulse. If you undertake no exercise, then it is important not to suddenly embark on heavy exercise but to build up over a period of weeks. Your doctor or practice nurse will be able to advise you about this.

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