What is cholesterol?
We’ve all heard about the dangers of having high cholesterol, but what exactly is cholesterol and what affect does it have on our body? Cholesterol is found in most tissues in the body. It’s a fatty substance that our body makes in order to create hormones, Vitamin D and bile (to aid with the digestion of food). Naturally occurring cholesterol plays a vital part in keeping our bodies working properly. When you look at it this way, cholesterol sounds pretty useful.
But there’s a catch!
Our bodies make all the cholesterol we need. There is also naturally occurring cholesterol present in certain foods. Eggs, liver, red meat, processed meat, cheese, butter and fast food are all high in cholesterol. When we eat too much of these foods then our cholesterol levels can get too high. This is when our health is put at risk. High cholesterol can also be caused by a number of other factors such as lack of exercise, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, genetic conditions, smoking, drinking and stress.
Why is cholesterol so dangerous?
There are two types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. LDL is sometimes known as “bad” cholesterol. As cholesterol is transported through the body, LDL cholesterol can adhere to the walls of the arteries causing a sticky plaque to build up. This can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis (thinning of the arteries) which can eventually result in heart attack or stroke.
What about good cholesterol?
You’ve probably heard people talking about “good” cholesterol. This is the HDL cholesterol. It carries the LDL cholesterol back to the liver to be reprocessed. There was a time when it was considered very healthy to have high levels of HDL cholesterol, but in recent studies it has been made clear that there are cases (such as a genetic mutation) where high HDL cholesterol is not always a sign of good health.
How will I know if my cholesterol levels are too high?
People with high blood cholesterol usually exhibit no signs or symptoms.
However, they are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease). In some cases, it is only when cardiovascular conditions develop that the high cholesterol is recognised. It is only through a lipid panel to test your total cholesterol level that you will know for sure. Your doctor may suggest a total cholesterol check if you exhibit one or more of the following risk factors for high cholesterol:
a family history of high cholesterol
high blood pressure
obesity (a BMI of over 30)
a waist circumference of over 40” for a man and 35” for a woman
Your age, gender and race may also play a part. In the US almost 50% of all women have high or borderline high cholesterol levels.
What has gender got to do with it?
As oestrogen tends to raise HDL cholesterol levels, women of childbearing age often have higher levels of HDL cholesterol than men. Young men have lower levels of HDL cholesterol, so they are more likely (on the whole) to have higher levels of LDL cholesterol. As a woman’s oestrogen levels drop, things change quite dramatically. After the age of 55 a women is twice as likely to develop an elevated level of cholesterol than a man of the same age. From nearly 37,000 American adults enrolled in the 1999-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey the risk of heart attack changed significantly from one in every 1,557 adults in their 20s to about one in every 118 men and women in their 60s.
Why does this matter?
It’s important to realise that people of all ages, both genders and all walks of life can be at risk of high cholesterol. In the past, high cholesterol was often seen as a male issue but nowadays people are aware that women are at risk too.
Cholesterol is needed to help our bodies function properly, but too much of it can cause serious health complications.
What you can do to improve your health
Maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the risk factors and enjoying a healthy diet are all ways to keep your cholesterol down. It is also important to tell your doctor about any family history of cardiovascular disease.
To maintain a healthy cholesterol balance, lead a balanced lifestyle. Keep stress to a minimum, engage in moderate exercise and be aware of what you eat. Stick to completely unprocessed foods that agree with you.
Looking after your body, being aware of potential risks and making informed lifestyle decisions will help you to stay healthy. We all need cholesterol for our bodies to work, but it is when our bad cholesterol levels spiral out of control that we have a problem.