What is LDL?
We’re all familiar with the idea of good and bad cholesterol. With high levels of good cholesterol reducing our risk of heart disease and an increase in the bad cholesterol doing quite the opposite. However, cholesterol tests can be confusing and when the doctors start throwing around little acronyms it can be hard to understand what they really mean. What exactly is LDL cholesterol and how does it affect our health?
What is LDL cholesterol?
LDL is that infamous “bad” cholesterol. It is LDL that can cause blockages in the blood vessels, potentially leading to heart attack and stroke. We all need cholesterol in our bodies. Cholesterol plays an important part in cell function and Vitamin D formation. It even helps produce certain hormones and bile. Cholesterol is made naturally by our livers but is also present in a variety of foods. If our livers are not functioning properly or our diet contains a lot of the wrong sorts of food then high levels of cholesterol can be a problem.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that clings to a group of proteins called lipoproteins. These proteins carry cholesterol around our bodies using our blood as a means of transport. The two main types of cholesterol are LDL and HDL or low-density lipoprotein and high-density lipoprotein. HDL is protective, whereas a build up on LDL can cause numerous health problems. It is also worth learning more about cholesterol as the good cholesterol is not always good for us. An increase in any of the lipoproteins in your blood is known as hyperlipidemia.
How does high LDL cholesterol affect our health?
An excess of LDL cholesterol causes fatty deposits (or plaques) to build up inside your arteries. In time, this can cause a restriction in blood flow to your organs, caused by narrowing arteries. If this continues it may cause angina, if the blood supply to the heart or brain is cut off then you may suffer a heart attack or stroke. Other risks include heart disease and TIAs (mini strokes).
What causes high LDL?
Unfortunately, our diet isn’t the only contributing factor to high LDL. Your genes, your gender, your ethnicity and your age will all affect it. If you have a family history of high cholesterol or high blood pressure this is worth mentioning to your doctor. Women are more likely to have high cholesterol, but the higher levels of oestrogen also mean that they have elevated levels of HDL. Men are more likely to suffer from a heart attack than women.
A diet that is high in saturated fat can cause cholesterol levels to rise. This means butter, biscuits, fatty meat, cheese, cream, cake, pies, sausages, bacon and these sorts of foods should be off the menu or at least limited. The current UK guidelines state that a man should not eat more than 30g of saturated fat in a day, and a woman should not eat more than 20g.
There is a chemical found in cigarettes, called acrolein that stops HDL cholesterol from travelling to the liver and causes atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries).
Sometimes high cholesterol is linked to another health condition. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, kidney disease or liver disease then it is more than likely that your doctor will also assess you for high cholesterol by doing a simple fasting blood test.
People over the age of 40 are more likely to suffer from high cholesterol. This isn’t to say that anyone younger than that is safe. It is worth weighing up the rest of the risk factors and taking precautions where necessary.
Individuals from certain ethnic groups, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Sri Lankan people are more prone to high cholesterol.
How is LDL measured?
A simple blood test can determine the levels of good and bad cholesterol in your blood. Your doctor will ask you to not eat for 10-12 hours before the test as any undigested food may affect the reading.
Your total cholesterol should measure 200 mg/dL or less. Your LDL level should be 100 or lower, however if you have excessive risk factors (eg. Cardiovascular disease) then your doctor may be looking for you to reduce your LDL level to 70 or lower.
Your triglyceride levels can also be checked. Triglycerides are fats in the blood, an elevated level of these puts you at greater risk of heart disease.
How to reduce your LDL level
A healthier diet – foods that are low in saturated fat
The right foods – foods that actively lower cholesterol
Getting active – aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
Limiting your alcohol intake – to 2 units a day or ideally stopping it all together
Losing weight – ideally, your BMI should be 25 or under, if it is 30 or over then you are putting your health at risk
reducing waist circumference – for men it should be less than 40” and for women less than 35”
There are certain foods that have been known to actively lower cholesterol. These include soya foods (aim for 15g of soya protein per day), nuts (try to eat a handful a day – walnuts are especially good), as well as oats, barley, plant sterols and stanols.
It was once believed that foods that were naturally high in cholesterol caused elevated cholesterol levels. However, new research shows that foods that are high in saturated fats are the culprits. Eggs are high in cholesterol but actually contain nutrients that can help lower the risk of heart disease.
The most common medications to help lower cholesterol are statins. Your doctor will advise you, but it is worth adopting a healthy lifestyle as well as taking these. Statins are also recommended to those who have an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Soluble fibre has also been proven effective in lowering blood cholesterol so include plenty of oats, vegetables, fruit and pulses in your diet. Apples, sweet potatoes, broccoli and prunes are all excellent sources of soluble fibre.
High cholesterol can affect all of us, regardless of ethnicity, lifestyle or pre-existing health conditions. The best way to protect your health is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, stay active, abstain from smoking and limit or even stop drinking all together.