Cholesterol – what it is, what it does and why too much is bad for you.

Cholesterol – one of those words that frequently hits the headlines. But what is it? It gets loads of bad press but nobody really tells you what it is. We’ve all seen the adverts for various products that have been ‘scientifically proven to actively reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood’. Ever tried these products? Ever had your cholesterol level tested? In this month’s article we will be looking at what cholesterol is and does and what we can do about it.

What is it?
Cholesterol is a type of fat. It is found in every cell in our body and is actually essential for good health. It is, for example, used to maintain the structure of cell membranes, helps in the manufacture of bile and is an important precursor in Vitamin D synthesis. However, high levels in the blood can lead to fatty deposits being left in the arteries – resulting in increased risk of heart disease and stroke, since it is harder for the blood to flow. According to BUPA, 7 out of 10 people aged over 45 in the UK have elevated cholesterol levels.

Where does it come from?
Cholesterol is directly manufactured by our bodies, primarily in the liver, and relatively little comes from the food we eat. It is transported around the body in the blood, in molecules known as lipoproteins: structures that completely enclose the insoluble fat in a water-soluble protein ‘package’.

There are two main types of cholesterol-transporting lipoprotein and these are named according to how much fat they contain: HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein). Most cholesterol in the blood is of the LDL type, which means very little protein in relation to fat. This is the ‘bad’ cholesterol and it is high levels of this form that causes problems. HDL is made up of mostly protein and can actually help prevent cholesterol deposits being left in the blood vessels.

Factors that contribute to high cholesterol:

  • A diet rich in saturated fats,
  • Little exercise,
  • Family history,
  • Being overweight,
  • Excessive alcohol consumption,
  • Age and sex (men are more affected than women and risks increase with age).

What the figures mean
A cholesterol test involves having a blood sample taken for analysis. While a home testing kit could give you a rough guide, it might be inaccurate if not performed correctly. Results are usually given in millimols of cholesterol per litre of blood (mmol/L). Current UK guidelines suggest the ideal is to have less than 5mmol/L total cholesterol and, of this, under 3mmol/L LDL.


What can we do?
While there are drugs we can be prescribed to reduce the amount of cholesterol in our blood, simple lifestyle changes (e.g. increasing the amount of daily exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating less food containing saturated fat, such as biscuits and cakes, butter, red meat and hard cheese) will also have a significant effec.

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