Cholesterol is a fat-related substance necessary for good health. It is a normal component of most body tissues, especially those of the brain, nervous system, liver and blood and is needed to form the sex and adrenal hormones, vitamin D and bile (a digestive secretion required for fat digestion). A high level of blood cholesterol, however, increases the likelihood of developing health problems such as heart disease.
Cholesterol levels are measured by a simple blood test. Your healthcare professional can organise this for you, along with other measurements of your cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure testing.
There are five types of cholesterol, but it is the high density and low density cholesterol (HDL and LDL) that we need to look at more closely.
HDL has the ability to clear built-up cholesterol from the arteries and help in its removal from the body – sometimes people refer to it as the “good” cholesterol.
LDL is linked to heart disease and is involved in the fatty build-up on artery walls – known as atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries”. This form of cholesterol is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol.
Atherosclerotic plaque on the inside lining of the arteries, impedes circulation and may lead to heart attack and stroke. Cholesterol may also collect in the gall bladder to form gallstones.
Cholesterol levels in the blood depend on both dietary factors and the amount of cholesterol manufactured by the body.
Approximately 75% of cholesterol is produced in the body and 25% is introduced via the diet.
As we age, cholesterol levels generally rise as the body increases production.
- Plant sterols have been the subject of much scientific investigation, from the 1950s onwards. Their mechanism of action centres primarily on the inhibition of cholesterol absorption, and appears to act on both dietary cholesterol, and on biliary cholesterol secreted into the digestive tract. Plant sterols help remove cholesterol from the body by helping to block cholesterol absorption from the intestine.
- Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin E help to protect the body from the effects of oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
- Coenzyme Q10 also inhibits oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
- Herbal treatment of high cholesterol focuses on liver health:
Herbs such as globe artichoke, dandelion and milk thistle support and protect liver function and are indicated for the treatment of cholesterol imbalance.
Bitter herbal preparations such as dandelion root tea are also traditionally used to support liver function.
Remember that cholesterol is not a disease in itself, but a measurement of risk of developing heart disease. It is important to look at your cholesterol level in the context of other risk factors such as family history, body weight and cigarette smoking.
Reduce dietary sources of cholesterol and saturated fats to 20-30% of your daily calorie intake. This involves avoiding animal fats (meat and full-fat dairy products), increasing fish in your diet, and eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains, which are cholesterol-free, virtually fat-free, and rich in fibre.
Regular aerobic exercise can be of benefit to those with high cholesterol levels. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional before commencing an exercise programme.
If you are overweight, talk to your healthcare professional about ways to address this.
Maintain a low-fat, high-fibre diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, and avoid meat products, aiming instead to use fish, legumes and grains as sources of protein.
Eating moderate amounts of such foods as nuts, seeds, and avocados may actually lower LDL cholesterol and be protective against heart disease.
Use cold-pressed vegetable oils where possible as these contain more nutrients than the more processed oils. Always check an oil before using, and discard oil at the first sign of rancidity.
Consultation with your healthcare professional regarding your cholesterol level is advised.
Treatment of high cholesterol levels includes appropriate lifestyle and dietary changes and the prescription of cholesterol-lowering medications that reduce the amount of LDL in the blood.
A low-fat diet and / or the use of some cholesterol-lowering medications can reduce the amount of the fat-soluble vitamins in the body, particularly vitamins A, D and E. Vitamin supplements are often advised when on a low-fat diet for any lengthy period