October is National Cholesterol Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness of cholesterol, what it is, what it does and how it can impact on your life.
So what is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is made in the liver. It is also found in some foods too. Everyone needs some cholesterol in their bodies just to keep them ticking over but having too much can clog up your arteries and lead to health problems in the future. But do you know what your cholesterol level is? If you don’t, it’s simple to find out. You just need to go to your doctor and ask for a simple cholesterol test and from this you will be able to determine how much cholesterol there is in your body.
Why do we need it?
Put simply, cholesterol plays a vital role in how your body works. You might not know this but there is cholesterol in every cell in your body, but it’s especially important in your brain, nerves and skin. Essentially cholesterol has three main jobs which are:
- It’s part of the outer layer, or membrane, of all your body’s cells.
- It’s used to make vitamin D and steroid hormones which keep your bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
- It’s used to make bile, which helps to digest the fats you eat.
We get some of our cholesterol from the food we eat, but most is made in the liver. After a meal, the fat in your food is broken down into triglycerides. These triglycerides are absorbed into the blood from the intestines and transported around the body. Cholesterol and triglycerides cannot circulate loosely in the blood, so the liver packages them into “parcels” called lipoproteins. The lipoproteins are then released into the blood and carried around the body to wherever they’re needed.
What are the different types of cholesterol?
As we have already said, cholesterol is a type of blood fat and blood fats are known as lipids. Cholesterol is carried in the blood from the liver, where it’s made, to wherever it’s needed in the body. It’s carried attached to proteins and other fats, and together they form tiny spheres, or balls, known as lipoproteins – lipids plus proteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins which you might see more commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol:
- LDL Cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) – This is the one that is often called bad cholesterol, because too much in the blood can lead to health problems. They contain lots of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol’s job is to deliver cholesterol to the cells where it’s needed. But if there’s too much it can build up in the arteries, clogging them up.
- HDL Cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) – This is the one that is often called good cholesterol because it helps your body stay healthy and prevents disease. They contain lots of protein, and very little cholesterol. HDL cholesterol’s job is to carry cholesterol away from the cells, back to the liver, where it can be broken down and removed from the body.
How is cholesterol broken down?
Some cholesterol will be returned to the liver and broken down. It’s used to make bile acids which are released into the intestines to help with digestion. Here they break down fats in food. A small amount of bile acids will also be removed from the body as a waste product. But most will be absorbed back into the blood, returned to the liver and used again for digestion.
What raises your cholesterol?
Your lifestyle can have a major effect on your cholesterol levels. Some of the things that can contribute to raised levels include eating too much saturated fat, smoking and drinking more alcohol than the recommended levels. Likewise if you are not active enough meaning that your body does not use up the fats in your blood to create energy. Genetic conditions can also impact on your cholesterol levels which may mean that your body fails to process the fats in the normal way.
Other factors that can have an impact on your cholesterol levels include your weight, especially if you are overweight or carry too much excess weight around your middle. Existing health conditions can also impact such as an underactive thyroid gland. If you suffer from type 2 diabetes this can also lead to higher cholesterol levels as can liver and kidney disease.
Increased cholesterol levels also come with age – the older you are the more likely you are to have raised cholesterol and damaged arteries. If you are lame then your chances of raised cholesterol are greater as is your ethnic background. The problem is particularly prevalent is people of South Asian origin.
What does high cholesterol mean?
In simple terms, high levels of cholesterol in your blood can clog up your arteries – the large blood vessels that carry blood around your body. Over time, this can lead to serious health problems. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can be laid down in the walls of your arteries. Fatty areas known as plaques can form, and these become harder with time, making the arteries stiffer and narrower. This process is called atherosclerosis. When the arteries become narrower, it’s harder for blood to flow through them. This puts a strain on your heart because it has to work harder to pump blood around your body. Eventually, the heart can become weak and can’t work as well as it should.
Alternatively, blood clots can form over the fatty, hardened parts of the arteries. The blood clots can block the artery completely, cutting off the blood flow. Bits of the blood clots can break away and become lodged in an artery or vein in another part of the body, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
How can you lower your cholesterol?
Well, the first thing to look at is your diet. Adjusting your diet so that it is low in saturated fat will help keep your cholesterol levels down. As well as eating well, there are other things you can do to look after your health and lower your cholesterol even further. These include exercise more, quit smoking if you are a smoker – research shows that you reduce the risk of heart disease by about 50% after 12 months of having quit smoking – and make sure that any other health problems that you might have are well monitored and treated with appropriate medicines under the supervision of your doctor.
For more information on cholesterol and National Cholesterol Month visit the Heart UK website at www.heartuk.org.uk or call their cholesterol helpline on 0345 450 5988.