We’ve all heard of high cholesterol, but what exactly is it and why is too much bad for us?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that’s found in every cell of our bodies. It’s produced in the liver and is essential for building healthy cells, producing hormones, aiding digestion and generating immune-boosting vitamin D. Cholesterol can also be consumed and it’s found in foods like meat, cheese and processed foods.
Cholesterol travels around the body in lipoproteins and two different types transport it:
Low-density Lipoprotein – LDL (aka bad cholesterol). This type of cholesterol is sticky and can build up in the body over time, clogging arteries.
High-density Lipoprotein – HPL (aka good cholesterol). This heroic cholesterol collects LDL from the arteries, returning it to the liver where it’s broken down and removed from the body.
With normal levels of cholesterol circulating, our bodies function happily but when the concentration of LDL cholesterol in the blood is too high, it can cause problems.
What is high cholesterol?
A healthy level of cholesterol in an adult should be no higher than 5.5 millimoles per litre.
Anything over this is considered high. The tricky thing with high cholesterol levels is that there are often no symptoms, so how do you know it’s high in the first place?
The simplest way to check your cholesterol levels is with a simple fingerprick test. This will quickly tell you whether your cholesterol levels are in the healthy range, or whether you need to lower them.
High cholesterol levels are usually caused by eating too much fatty and processed foods and drinking too much alcohol but other factors can influence your cholesterol levels too. These include diabetes, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, pregnancy, being overweight and having an under active thyroid. Additionally, high cholesterol levels can run in families so if this applies to you, make sure you schedule regular checkups.
Why high cholesterol levels are bad for you
Our bodies need cholesterol to function but when levels are too high, it can contribute to heart attacks and heart disease. High LDL cholesterol levels can lead to a build-up of fatty deposits in the blood vessels, preventing blood from flowing properly through the arteries.
How can I lower my cholesterol levels naturally?
If you’ve got high levels of cholesterol, the good news is that with a few simple lifestyle changes, you can get it back on track. Here’s how:
1. Eat more beans!
Yes, that’s right. Beans and pulses are packed with fibre which lessens the absorption of cholesterol in the gut. They also promote the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Think kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans and good old baked beans.
Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in legumes and pulses can lower LDL cholesterol by as much as 5%. You can easily introduce a daily serving (¾ cup) by making chilli with kidney beans, a moussaka with lentils and plenty of vegetables, or a spicy, mixed bean wrap.
2. Say no to takeaway
We all know if it tastes good it’s probably bad for us right? If your cholesterol levels are high, you’ll need to start by cutting down on fatty foods. It doesn’t mean ditching the treats altogether but lowering your saturated fat intake will have a huge effect on your LDL cholesterol levels.
Red meats like beef and pork and full-fat dairy products contain especially high amounts of saturated fat so switch to leaner meats like turkey and chicken and opt for low-fat dairy products. Other foods to avoid include sausages, meat pies and foods containing fatty palm or coconut oils.
3. Move more
Exercising regularly will lower LDL cholesterol levels but it can also help to raise HDL cholesterol levels. Japanese researchers have found that HDL levels increased after participants exercised for 40 minutes, 3-4 times a week for 8 to 27 weeks. The length of time spent exercising seemed to be more important than the intensity of the exercise so grab your trainers, get on a bike, hire a SUP and get out there. Find something you love doing and it will become part of your lifestyle rather than a chore.
4. Embrace plant-based
Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. Upping your intake of healthy, organic foods will benefit your body in many ways and it can drastically lower your LDL cholesterol levels. You’ll also be doing your bit to help the planet. Many restaurants are offering vegan options and some vegan burgers taste as good, if not better than the real deal! You don’t have to be completely vegan, just choose plant-based over meat a few times a week.
Soybeans, peas, bananas, sesame oil, nuts, and everyone’s favourite, the humble sprout, are particularly high in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols.
5. Cut back on the booze
Cutting back on alcohol is a great way to naturally lower cholesterol levels that your liver will love you for. Although alcohol doesn’t contain cholesterol, it’s broken down into triglycerides which can increase LDL cholesterol levels. Certain drinks such as beer and sugary cocktails are particularly bad culprits but the best advice is to avoid binge-drinking and stick to the recommended daily amount.
6. Swap sliced white for sourdough
If you regularly consume refined carbs like white bread, white rice, pastries, sugary cereals and pizza, it’s time to cut back. Not only will you lose fat fast, but your liver will stop producing excess cholesterol. Swap white bread for wholemeal or sourdough and white rice for brown – you’ll barely notice the difference.
7. Stub it out
If you’re a smoker, quitting is the single best thing you can do for your body. Smoking lowers your HDL cholesterol levels and makes LDL cholesterol even stickier.
8. Try home remedies
Along with a healthy diet, try these natural remedies to help lower your LDL cholesterol levels:
Green Tea – Packed with antioxidants, green tea can help to lower cholesterol levels.
Turmeric – Try adding to curries or mixing a teaspoon with warm water and drinking each morning.
Garlic – The allicin compound in garlic may be effective in lowering cholesterol levels.
Apple cider vinegar – Add a tablespoon to a glass of water and drink daily.
9. Maintain a healthy weight
Last but not least, keeping a healthy body weight will help with lowering cholesterol levels. Losing just 10% of your body weight has been shown to dramatically lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 131 114.