Over the past year, many of us have taken more time to consider how we can improve our wellbeing. For a lot of people, the word cholesterol might stir up feelings of fear or worry because of its association with heart disease and stroke. But not all cholesterol is bad – in fact, we need a healthy level of it to stay alive – and often, a raised cholesterol level is just an important indicator that we need to make some healthy adjustments to our lifestyle.
Unfortunately, some people are naturally more prone to developing high cholesterol as a result of genetics and may require medication. However, for the majority of people, making some positive lifestyle changes (even small ones) can make the world of difference.
If you’re looking to get your cholesterol in check this year and work on improving your health, then have a read of the information below to explore what cholesterol is and how you can check yours. We’ve also put together five tips that can help lower cholesterol, and maintain it at a healthy level.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that circulates in the blood, and we need it in our bodies to remain healthy. It’s responsible for producing hormones and vitamin D, and it supports digestion. However, having too much cholesterol can clog up our arteries and put us at greater risk of health issues, including cardiovascular diseases like heart disease and stroke.
Cholesterol comes from two sources. There’s the cholesterol that our livers produce naturally, and the dietary cholesterol found in some foods, for example in meat and dairy products.
HDL is known as the ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps get rid of excess cholesterol produced by our diet, so that less ends up in your arteries.
LDL is known as the ‘bad cholesterol’ because it’s taken to your arteries. Here, it can begin to build up into a plaque known as atherosclerosis, which increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.
It’s also important to be aware of triglycerides, which are the most common type of fat found in our bodies. A high level of triglyceride paired with low HDL (good cholesterol) and high LDL (bad cholesterol) can exacerbate the build up of fat in artery walls, further increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
For further explanation about LDL (bad cholesterol), HDL (good cholesterol), and triglycerides, you might like to have a watch of the video below from the British Heart Foundation:
What are the warning signs of high cholesterol?
Typically, there aren’t any warning signs or symptoms of having high cholesterol, which is why it’s so important to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly, and to start taking precautions early – especially if your family has a history of high cholesterol, as you might be at a greater risk of developing it yourself.
If your cholesterol reaches high levels it can lead to coronary artery (heart) disease, which may bring about symptoms including chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, feeling faint, and extreme fatigue. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms then you should arrange to see your doctor straight away. Not everyone will have the same symptoms – some people will have none at all – and they may not necessarily be caused by heart disease. But it’s still always best to get any worrying symptoms checked out by a health professional.
How can I get my cholesterol levels checked?
It’s recommended that all adults have a cholesterol test every five years, despite your age or how healthy you may feel. This is because high cholesterol often doesn’t present any signs or symptoms, so you can only really know your levels if you get them checked.
A cholesterol check involves a simple blood test, and your doctor should also check your triglyceride levels because these affect your cardiovascular health too. The test can measure your total cholesterol, HDL (good cholesterol), LDL (bad cholesterol), and triglyceride levels. If your result only tells you your total cholesterol levels, you can request a full breakdown from your doctor or nurse.
Other tests can also be performed alongside a cholesterol test to give an overall result of your cardiovascular health and to determine your risk of health issues. These include a blood pressure test and a BMI test. Combined, the results will show if lifestyle changes are adequate or whether you require treatment.
You can get your cholesterol tested at your local GP clinic or health centre, as well as at some gyms and leisure centres. Cholesterol tests should be offered to everyone aged between 40 and 70 as part of your regular NHS health check. However, if you’re concerned about your cholesterol – for example if you’re overweight or if high cholesterol runs in your family – you can request a test from your local GP surgery at any time. You can find your local GP surgery using this tool from the NHS. Or to learn more about the cholesterol testing process, check out this NHS page here.
What is a healthy cholesterol level?
Cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/L) in the UK. You should always ask your doctor or nurse what a healthy range for your cholesterol levels should be, because it can vary from person to person.
Below is a general guide to healthy cholesterol levels, as advised by the NHS:
|Total cholesterol||5 or below|
|HDL (good cholesterol)||1 or above|
|LDL (bad cholesterol)||3 or below|
|Non-HDL (bad cholesterol)||4 or below|
|Triglycerides||2.3 or below|
What factors can affect cholesterol levels?
There are certain factors that can affect cholesterol levels. Some of these include unhealthy lifestyle habits (which can be controlled) including a poor diet high in saturated fat, a lack of physical activity, smoking, stress, and weight gain (especially around your midsection).
However, there are also other factors that can lead to high cholesterol which can’t be controlled. For example, high LDL cholesterol levels can sometimes be inherited. This genetic condition is known as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), and it affects a person’s ability to get rid of LDL cholesterol. For tips and advice on how to manage FH, have a read of this article from the FH Foundation.
5 tips to help lower cholesterol
1. Try to maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight can affect our cardiovascular health because alongside contributing to high blood pressure and increased blood glucose and insulin levels, it can also lead to high cholesterol.
According to Heart UK, losing just 10% of your body fat will help to lower cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels, and the risk of diabetes and of some forms of cancer. If you’re not sure whether you’re overweight, you can check using this BMI calculator on the NHS website.
If you do think that you need to lose some weight, then it’s important to remember that small steps can go a long way. Having smaller portions, increasing your activity, and avoiding sugary and fatty snacks can make a huge difference. It can also be helpful to view weight loss (with a view to becoming healthier) as an exciting, transformative stage in your life that will help you to become the best version of yourself. And often, the slower and more sustainable this journey is, the less likely you are to have to repeat any lifestyle changes again in the future.
Remember, be kind and patient with yourself and don’t expect too much from yourself too quickly – you should be proud that you’re taking action in the first place.
2. Eat a healthy and balanced diet
Reduce the amount of saturated and trans fat you’re eating
In terms of altering your diet to reduce your cholesterol levels, the most important thing you can do is to reduce the amount of saturated fat and trans fats you eat – because a diet high in these can increase the amount of LDL (bad cholesterol) in the bloodstream – and replace them with healthier unsaturated fats instead. This has to do with the fact that saturated and trans fats hold more hydrogen atoms than unsaturated fats and are solid rather than liquid at room temperature, meaning they’re more prone to blocking up arteries.
Foods high in saturated fat include animal fats like butter, fatty meat, and full-fat dairy products like cream and cheese. Trans fats can also be found in some foods, including animal products like meat and dairy, but artificial trans fats are also found in some processed foods like packaged cookies and cakes, crips and crackers, and fried foods.
Unsaturated ‘healthy’ fats however, are found mainly in foods like vegetable oils, fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds. The Omega-3 found in some of these foods containing unsaturated fats (for example, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, walnuts, flaxseeds, and canola oil) also brings many health benefits and can help prevent and treat heart disease and stroke.
Therefore, to reduce the amount of trans and saturated fat you’re eating, you could consider swapping out cuts of fatty red meat with leaner alternatives. For example, you could have a chicken breast without the skin, cook with olive oil rather than butter or margarine, and opt for nuts (like cashews and almonds) instead of cake and biscuits for a snack.
You can find some further guidance on how to eat less saturated and trans fats and swap them with healthier alternatives here on the NHS website.
Consider including more plant-based proteins in your diet
There’s a common misconception that in order to get enough protein, you need to eat a lot of meat. But in fact, there’s increasing evidence that replacing animal proteins with plant-based protein can be beneficial to your health. For example, one study showed that because plant-based proteins are lower in fat and cholesterol than animal protein, consumption of them can help lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and overall cholesterol levels.
Of course, this doesn’t have to mean cutting out meat entirely, but considering reducing your intake could make a big difference – plus, you’ll also be helping the environment. There are so many delicious sources of plant protein including pulses, nuts, seeds, cereals, and soya, and there’s also an ever-growing market of plant-based ‘meat’ alternatives, like products from Quorn, Linda McCartney, and Vivera, to name just a few.
Make sure you’re getting plenty of fibre
It’s also a good idea to include plenty of fibre in your diet as this can have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. The NHS advises that adults should aim for at least 30 grams of fibre a day.
Foods high in fibre include wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables, oats and barley, and pulses such as beans, peas and lentils.
Try using healthier cooking methods
As a general rule of thumb, fried foods tend to be higher in calories and trans fats because they’re often coated in oil, batter, or flour. Therefore, grilling, steaming, boiling, or poaching your food – or opting for these options if you’re eating out – can be helpful if you’re looking to reduce the amount of unhealthy fat in your diet.
If you love fried foods and this is sounding rather bleak to you, don’t worry – these healthy lifestyle changes don’t have to mean never eating your favourite foods again, but rather eating in moderation to help look after your cholesterol levels.
3. Make exercise a normal part of your routine
Not only can regular exercise help you maintain a healthy weight, grow your muscles, and reduce your risk of developing various medical conditions, it’s also beneficial to your heart health – including your cholesterol levels.
Studies have shown that aerobic exercise, which leads to healthy weight loss or maintenance can have a positive effect on LDL cholesterol levels. For example, one study showed that when a person lost a kilogram of body weight, their LDL cholesterol was also reduced by about 0.8 mg/dL. Therefore, when used as a tool to become or maintain a healthy weight, regular exercise over time can help to lower cholesterol.
Unlike medications used to treat high cholesterol, aerobic exercise is a much easier (and even, enjoyable) way to control cholesterol levels, and doesn’t bring a list of possible side effects with it.
If you haven’t yet found a form of exercise that suits you, why not try cycling, walking, dance, pilates, or even Tai Chi? If you’re still seeking inspiration, hopefully you’ll find some ideas in our articles 10 different sports and activities to try, 8 different fitness ideas, and 10 creative ways to get fit and have fun.
4. Say no to smoking
Research shows that people who smoke tend to have lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels than non-smokers. According to Heart UK, just three weeks after quitting, HDL cholesterol levels can rapidly increase and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke almost straight away.
Quitting smoking also has various other health benefits, including increased energy levels, improved breathing ability and circulation – making walking and running a lot easier – and a lowered risk of lung cancer.
If you smoke and are seeking help to quit, consider talking to your doctor about help-to-quit-smoking programmes, or about alternative methods you can use to stop smoking. You can read more about NHS services to help you quit smoking here, including different options, what to expect, and how to prevent relapse.
5. Take steps to reduce your stress levels
When experienced too often, stress can have a huge impact on our bodies and lead to things including headaches, heartburn, insomnia, depression, and high blood pressure.
It can also have an impact on our cardiovascular health, and research has shown a link between stress and cholesterol levels. For example, one study found that psychological stress can lead to increased levels of triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and decreased levels of HDL (good cholesterol), while this study from the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health identified a link between people in high-stress jobs and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but if you often find yourself in stressful situations – whether at work or at home – there are steps that you can take to try and manage these feelings. Different things work for different people – some might find it useful to get outside for some fresh air and spend time amongst nature, and others might prefer to connect with others, or recentre their thoughts using techniques like mindfulness or deep breathing.
If you’re not sure what techniques to try to help manage your stress, you might find some ideas in our article 7 tips for coping with stress and anxiety, or among these stress buster ideas from the NHS.
Should I consider taking medication to lower my cholesterol levels?
If lifestyle and diet changes aren’t making enough of a difference to high cholesterol levels, or if your doctor informs you that you’re at risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, then they might consider prescribing you some medication to lower your cholesterol levels. Statins are the most common medication for high cholesterol, but there are also other options which you can read more about here on Heart UK. Your GP or health practitioner will always be best placed to advise you based on your individual circumstances, but remember that it’s completely your choice whether you start taking any medication.
If you feel lifestyle changes aren’t having enough of an impact, or you’re worried about your cholesterol levels, then it’s best to arrange to speak to your doctor so that they can advise you on the best options for you.
Cholesterol is different for everyone and some people will naturally find it more difficult than others to maintain it at a healthy level. While your cholesterol levels are something to keep an eye on and to take seriously, this shouldn’t leave you feeling scared, or cause any unwanted anxiety or stress; after all, having high cholesterol does not mean you’ll definitely have a heart attack or stroke. Often, it’s just an important indicator that you should be taking some steps towards a healthier lifestyle.
For some people with high cholesterol, medication might be required, but for others, it can simply be a case of making a few simple but effective lifestyle changes. Your weight, what you eat, how active, or stressed you are, and whether you smoke or not are all factors that can have a huge impact on your cholesterol levels. Therefore, lowering your cholesterol is something that you can work on everyday by taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. And the best part is, you’ll also be looking after your entire wellbeing in the process.
If you’re worried about your cholesterol, would like to get a cholesterol test, or are seeking further medical advice, you should book an appointment with your local GP or health practitioner.
Have you taken steps to lower your cholesterol recently? What has made the biggest difference for you? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.