You have probably heard a lot of talk about cholesterol over the years: good and bad cholesterol, the importance of cutting cholesterol. You may even have been told that your cholesterol levels are too high.
But what is cholesterol? What does it do? How can you lower your cholesterol if it’s too high? The following will help to answer these and other frequently asked questions.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found naturally in our bodies. Despite its bad rap, cholesterol plays many important roles, including the production and repair of cell membranes and the maintenance of hormone and vitamin D levels. Without cholesterol, we would actually be in a pretty tough spot.
But too much cholesterol in the blood is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol is a major component of the plaque that can build up on the inside of our arteries, slowly reducing blood flow to important tissues and organs.
The more cholesterol there is in the blood, the more opportunity there is for it to contribute to plaque formation. For this reason it is important to keep cholesterol in a healthy range—enough to be helpful but not so much that it increases our risk of cardiovascular disease.
Where does cholesterol come from?
Although cholesterol is found in some foods (eggs, seafood, red meat and other animal foods), this has relatively little impact on the cholesterol levels of most people. The majority of our cholesterol is made right in our own bodies, by the liver.
How much cholesterol the liver makes is influenced in part by our diets, particularly our intake of saturated fats and trans fats. While the body needs a little saturated fat to keep things running smoothly, too much leads to problems, including high cholesterol levels.
So be wary how much saturated fat you are eating, and minimise your intake of fried foods, fatty meats, high-fat dairy products and other sources of saturated fats. Trans fats, which can still be found in some fast foods and packaged/processed foods, have no known use in the body and should be avoided altogether.
The good, the bad and the triglycerides
We often hear talk of good and bad cholesterol. In reality, there is only one type of cholesterol, but there are different proteins that carry cholesterol around in the blood. These protein carriers are referred to as lipoproteins, and the two main types that are most often discussed are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
HDL is known as good cholesterol; it helps to carry cholesterol away from artery walls and brings it back to the liver for processing and removal from the body. High levels of HDL are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
LDL is often called the bad cholesterol, because it transports cholesterol to the tissues and organs of the body and is the type found in arterial plaques.
In addition to LDL and HDL, you may also have heard of triglycerides, another type of fat that can be measured in the blood. High levels of triglycerides are also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Take heart! If you have high cholesterol levels there are plenty of natural ways to help reduce these levels and get back on the track to better cardiovascular health.
There are several natural health products that can provide an extra boost in balancing your cholesterol levels. Here are a few of the stars.
These plant-derived compounds are among the best-studied natural cholesterol- lowering ingredients. Doses of 0.8 g to 4 g per day have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 15 per cent, though most studies have used a dose of 2 g per day. This appears to be the dose at which the most benefits are attained (with significantly higher doses not providing additional LDL-lowering effects).
Multiple studies have shown that phytosterol supplementation can reduce both total cholesterol and triglycerides.
Fish oils have become a widely recognised ingredient for heart health. Although they have not been shown to have large effects on LDL or HDL cholesterol, they do shine when it comes to their effect on triglycerides.
Researchers have found that taking a daily dose of fish oil that provides an average of 3.25 g of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, can lower triglyceride levels by about 30 per cent in those with elevated triglycerides.
In addition to this, fish oils also help to reduce markers on inflammation and elevated blood pressure, effects that can also lead to a happier and healthier heart.
Although soy has come under fire by some in recent years, it still has a strong track record when it comes to reducing LDL cholesterol levels. A review of 11 clinical trials concluded that consumption of soy isoflavones can lead to reductions in both total and LDL cholesterol, which could have a meaningful impact on cardiovascular disease risk.
Soy isoflavones are relatively easy to increase in the diet due to the wide variety of soy foods available. When choosing soy foods, reach more often for ones that are unprocessed and without a lot of added salt. Edamame, tofu and tempeh are good options, as well as plain soy protein that can be added to baked goods or smoothies.
Testing your blood
Blood testing for cholesterol and triglycerides is very common, and most people over the age of 40, or who have a family history of cholesterol problems, will be (or at least should be) tested by their doctor.
When you receive your blood test results, they will usually include readings for the total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. Here are the target ranges that are currently considered healthy for each one.
|triglycerides||less than 1.7 mmol/L|
|total cholesterol||less than 5.2 mmol/L|
|HDL||higher than 1.3 mmol/L for women, and 1.0 for men|
|LDL||less than 3.5 mmol/L|
Although these readings are not a conclusive prediction of whether you are at risk of cardiovascular problems down the road (many people who suffer heart attacks or strokes have normal cholesterol levels), they do provide one set of clues that can be useful in determining risk.
Promoting healthy cholesterol levels
According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), if you make a number of changes to your diet you can expect your cholesterol to fall by 10 per cent. To keep your cholesterol at a healthy level, heart and stroke organisations recommend the following:
- Reduce fat intake to 20 to 35 per cent of your daily kilojoules, and focus on unsaturated fats such as those from seeds, fish and nuts.
- Bake, grill or steam food, and avoid higher fat cooking methods such as frying.
- Don’t smoke. This raises LDL cholesterol levels.
- Stay active. Increasing HDL (remember, this is a good thing) is most easily achieved with regular exercise. At least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days is a good place to start. Brisk walking, running, hiking or other activities that get the heart and respiratory rates up will help to promote healthy levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Emphasise whole grains and vegetables in the diet as well as lean proteins.