It’s part of the outer layer of every cell and without it your digestive system couldn’t function. Without it your body couldn’t make vitamin D or the hormones that protect bones, teeth, and muscles. So, what is the big problem with cholesterol?
What Is Cholesterol And How Does It Work?
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Cholesterol is a fatty substance made in your liver, along with another fat called triglycerides. Blood fats are referred to as lipids and these lipids become bound together with proteins into spherical particles known as lipoproteins. They are then released into the blood stream and carried to cells where they are either used or stored. Excess lipids are carried back to the liver where they are processed to make bile acid which is then used by the intestines to help break down dietary fats. Some of these bile acids are eliminated as waste but most are reabsorbed into the blood and reused for digestion.
There are various types of lipoproteins but the main two are LDL (low density lipoprotein) and HDL (high density lipoprotein):
- LDL is often referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol because when LDL levels become too high, problems arise due to this type of lipoprotein containing a large amount of cholesterol. An excess of cholesterol, beyond what the body can use, creates a build-up in the arteries, narrowing the artery walls.
- HDL lipoprotein, on the other hand, helps protect us from disease. It contains high levels of protein but very little cholesterol. It is also effective in transporting cholesterol away from cells and back to the liver where it can be processed and eliminated from the body as waste. For this reason, HDL is often referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol.
What Causes Cholesterol Levels To Get Too High?
The liver is not the only means we have of making cholesterol. There are various reasons and causes of our body producing extra, and sometimes more than we need. The main causes of cholesterol levels becoming too high are:
Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited condition responsible for some people being unable to effectively get rid of excess cholesterol. This is because a faulty gene is responsible for their blood fats not being processed in the correct way. According to statistics, it affects an estimated 1 in 200 people in most countries and is thought to be the most commonly inherited condition affecting the heart and blood vessels.
Familial hypercholesterolemia is generally under-diagnosed so if you have a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks under 50 years of age it is important to get cholesterol levels tested, even for young children, as this condition is very easily treated with cholesterol-lowering medication.
Eating too much red meat, full-fat dairy products, processed foods and pastries. Red meat contains higher levels of saturated fat than white meat or fish.
Lack of Exercise
Lack of physical exercise prevents blood fats being efficiently burned for energy. Exercise increases levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and even if you are overweight researchers have reported in the Journal of Obesity that adults who walked, jogged and cycled, as well as following a cholesterol-lowering diet, improved their total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Stress has been found to have an indirect impact on cholesterol levels. Numerous studies have found a positive connection between high stress levels and high cholesterol. This is thought to be due to the body continually releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline as a response to feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. The presence of these hormones triggers production of triglycerides which in turn boost levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
It is when stress becomes a constant companion in your life that it can cause health issues, including those associated with high cholesterol. Simply cutting down anxiety and stress levels is not something most of us can do easily but what we can do is learn to manage these emotions so that their negative effect on our health is minimised. One thing that may help, which can often be achieved fairly quickly, is to concentrate a little more on making time for yourself. Something as simple as a leisurely walk out in the fresh air, just looking around gardens or shop windows. Maybe find somewhere to sit where you can watch whatever’s going on so your thoughts are distracted for ten to twenty minutes can provide you with a cathartic break from your own personal rat race. There are more ideas for you in our blog on the natural way to cope with stress and anxiety.
A great technique to ease the kind of stress that can suddenly make you feel you are about to reach meltdown is to take an ‘eleven-second step-aside,’ and this also helps you keep your temper if you can catch it before the flash point arrives. The moment you recognise the feeling that you are about to lose it, just close your eyes and picture the most tranquil scene you have ever experienced. It could be a field of corn waving in the breeze or a walk along the tideline of a beach with sea washing over your toes. It could be sitting by the fire, watching a film or just gazing at the flames. As you visualise your chosen scene, slowly breath in for five seconds, hold your breath for a second or two then breath out over the next 5 seconds. This will help you over that meltdown moment.
Checking Your Cholesterol
Eating too much saturated fat or having a sedentary or stressful lifestyle are not the only causes of raised cholesterol levels. Anyone can have high levels of cholesterol in their blood because sometimes the problem is down to genetics. Even young, fit adults can find they have high cholesterol, and for this reason everyone should have a blood test from time to time to check their levels. There is no other way of knowing if you have high cholesterol because there are no signs or symptoms, but the test is readily available to everyone. Being given the results that warn you of high cholesterol in your blood gives you chance to take action, thereby saving yourself from future heart disease and risk of stroke. It’s a quick, simple test that can save your life.
Medical Treatment To Lower Cholesterol
If your cholesterol level readings are high, you may be offered medication known as statins. There has been a certain amount of controversy regarding statins over the past few years due to some possible side effects (mainly muscular pain and reduced levels of Co Enzyme Q10), but the fact remains that statins are effective in reducing cholesterol and this saves a great many people from life-threatening heart problems. The effectiveness of taking statins is greatly heightened, and in many cases the need to take them can be eliminated, if you are prepared to make a few lifestyle changes. Some tips on making these self-help changes are given later in this blog.
The way statins work is by reducing the amount of LDL-cholesterol made by your liver and because the liver is then not producing so much, it is forced to utilise more cholesterol from your bloodstream to allow it to make enough bile for the job of breaking down fat. This process results in the lowering of levels of cholesterol in your blood.
Another drug you may be prescribed is a cholesterol absorption inhibitor (Ezetimibe or Ezetrol) which works by partly restricting the reabsorption of cholesterol from foods in the small intestine. This means that less cholesterol reaches the liver for re-cycling, so the liver needs to extract more cholesterol from the blood.
Ezetimibe is usually used to treat anyone who can’t take statins or in cases where statins are not bringing LDL-cholesterol levels down sufficiently. It may also be prescribed alongside statins in certain cases. Like statins, Ezetimibe has certain side effects which are usually mild and temporary; these are mainly gastrointestinal disturbance, flatulence and fatigue. When taken together with a statin the most common side effects include muscle pain, headaches and raised liver enzymes.
Heart UK have information on their website for anyone concerned about their cholesterol levels and wishing to get more information on medication.
Self-Help For Lowering Cholesterol Levels
Taking the natural approach to reducing cholesterol, or as a preventative measure, is a preferred option for many people. Dietary supplements are available which contain LDL lowering properties and our heart-health supplements have been developed by natural health experts to not only lower cholesterol but to improve circulation, blood pressure levels and help control fluid retention.
Tips To Help You Reduce Your Cholesterol Level
Replacing some of the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats is a good way to lower your cholesterol figures. Foods which have unsaturated fats are:
- Oily fish
- Oily fish contain omega-3 and can help greatly with lowering cholesterol. Omega-3 fats are a group of unsaturated fats that promote heart-health, and they are mainly found in sardines, mackerel, salmon, trout and pilchards. Fresh, tinned or frozen are all good.
- If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet it is possible to obtain these essential omega fats from plant-based sources. Our supplement called Ahiflower Seed Oil is very rich in omega 3, 6 and 9 and has no fish or algae ingredients.
- Plant-based oils
- Olive, sunflower and rapeseed are healthier choices for cooking. For salad dressings and dips virgin olive oil, nut and seed oils are good choices.
- Avocados are a good food to include in your diet as they contain the kind of fat that helps lower cholesterol.
- Nuts and seeds
- Particularly flax seed and chai, are full of healthy fats. Walnuts are particularly good, but avoid coconut oil, despite often being heralded as a healthy alternative, it is extremely high in saturated fat.
- Skimmed milk
- Skimmer or semi-skimmed milk, or you may like to try some of the plant-derived milks such as soya, almond, rice and oat milk.
- Eggs were once considered to be too high in cholesterol and therefore should be restricted but the latest research, according to British Heart Foundation report, is that one egg each day is fine when part of a healthy diet.
- Spreads made from polyunsaturated fats such as olive and sunflower oil. Certain spreads contain the addition of plant sterols which have been found to be beneficial in lowering cholesterol. These are a much better bet than using butter.
- There are some excellent low-fat yogurts available but look for those which have been strained and whipped as they have a satisfyingly creamy texture to compensate for the lack of fat. Beware of low-fat brands where manufacturers attempt to replace the texture and taste of full-fat yogurt by adding loads of sugar or artificial sweetener. Much better to buy natural, unsweetened yogurt and add your own chopped fresh fruit.
- Cheese such as Edam and Gouda have less fat than most hard cheeses, or you might like the 50% fat-reduced Cheddars available. Reduced fat soft cheese, quark and cottage cheese are good choices.
- White meats
- Turkey and chicken are a much healthier option than eating too much red meat but always remove the skin from poultry as a great deal of fat is in the skin. Turkey mince is a useful substitute if you are planning dishes such as bolognaise, chilli or burgers. If you do choose to use minced beef look for 5% fat on the label. A good tip is to add lots of extra vegetables and beans or lentils. This helps you reduce the amount of meat you need to add to the dish.
- Linolenic acid
- Flax, also called linseed, walnuts, almonds and various seeds such as chai provides us with alpha linolenic acid which is part of the omega group of fats and plays a part in heart health.
- Plant-based foods
- Include more plant-based foods in your diet. Certain plants contain components (phytosterols) that are chemically similar to cholesterol, but which have been proven to help lower LDL cholesterol. Studies have found that plant sterols are an effective natural treatment for high cholesterol.
- Some food manufacturers fortify products such as margarine spreads, juice, yogurts, milk, bread and cheese with plant sterols. You can also boost your intake of vegetables which naturally contain plant sterols such as kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, red onions and Brussels sprouts. Plant sterols are also available as a supplement.
- Natural dietary supplements derived from algae contain many phytonutrients which support health and have been found to lower cholesterol. Our Hawaiian Spirulina is from a blue/green-micro algae, given the accolade of ‘superfood’ due to its high levels of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Hawaiian Spirulina is suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Choose complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and pasta. Oats are an excellent food for lowering cholesterol and for best absorption they need to be rolled or milled oats rather than the unprocessed whole kind. Choose wholemeal bread – particularly bread which contains flax and chai seed. Flax has been the subject of a double-blind randomized crossover study with 17 subjects in which the conclusion stated: Viscous flaxseed dietary fibres may be a useful tool for lowering blood cholesterol and potentially play a role in energy balance.
If you are already receiving treatment for high cholesterol, it’s important to discuss with your doctor any natural supplements you are planning to take to ensure they are complementary to your prescribed medication.
A Word About Trans Fats
Many foods which have long been regular additions to the family shopping trolley, favourite snack bar treats and fast-food outlet meals contain unhealthy fats known as trans fats and these are extremely bad news for heart health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for a ban on the use of trans fats world-wide, but this has yet to be fully implemented.
Trans fats are when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to make it more solid. They are mainly found in commercially processed baked goods such as biscuits, doughnuts, pastries, cakes, pies, some margarines and vegetable oils, certain brands of ice cream and some fast foods cooked in deep fryers.
A statement three years ago published by WHO reads: In the UK, the latest national diet and nutrition survey shows average intake of trans fats is well below the recommended upper limit of 2% of food energy, at 0.5-0.7%. Although companies manufacturing processed food in the UK do not use trans fats any more, the fats are in some cheap foods imported from other countries.
Although UK food producers have agreed to cut trans fats from their ingredients, and, according to the British Heart Foundation this has helped greatly, it is still a good idea to check labels and be on the look-out for and avoid ingredients listed as ‘mono and diglycerides of fatty acids’ particularly in imported goods.
Help and Support
The British Heart Foundation have a wealth of useful information on their website and a support facility with helpline available.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of using natural supplements, or would find advice helpful, please feel free to contact us on 01297 553932.