Demystifying cholesterol: causes, symptoms and treatments
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fatty substance made naturally in the body, and we need a certain amount because it's vital for the formation of cell structures, hormones and substances that aid digestion.
Some people have a heriditary condition where their bodies make too much cholesterol.
“Good” and “bad” cholesterol
There are basically two kinds of cholesterol:
- “Good” or HDL cholesterol (the full term is High Density Lipoprotein). HDL cholesterol is sometimes called “good” because it helps remove cholesterol from the arteries, the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the body’s cells.
- “Bad” or LDL cholesterol (Low Density Lipoprotein). LDL cholesterol is sometimes called “bad” because high levels are linked to build-up in your arteries.
A helpful way to remember the difference between HDL and LDL:
- You want HDL cholesterol levels to be HIGH.
- You want LDL cholesterol levels to be LOW.
Total cholesterol is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, including both LDL and HDL cholesterol.
What is high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is when you have too much cholesterol in your blood. It may also be called high blood cholesterol, hypercholesterolaemia or hyperlipidaemia. Your total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol may be too high, or your HDL cholesterol too low.
The most important effect of high cholesterol is that it can cause narrowing and blockages in the arteries.
Excess cholesterol, and other substances normally found in the blood like calcium and fat, can start to build up just under the lining of artery walls. The areas of the artery wall where cholesterol and other matter collects are called “plaques”. The formation of plaques in the arteries is a condition called atherosclerosis, arteriosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries”.
How arteriosclerosis progresses
Over time, the plaques get harder and narrow the arteries further, limiting blood flow and damaging the artery wall. The rougher the plaques make the artery lining, the more likely substances like platelets, which make the blood sticky and promote clotting, will also get trapped there.
If narrowing occurs in the coronary arteries, which carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle itself, the condition is called coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease, which raises risk for heart attack.
Coronary artery disease may cause angina: pain or a sensation of pressure in your chest. You may also feel angina pain in your arms, shoulders, neck, jaw or back; it may even feel like indigestion.
A section of plaque can break open, causing a blood clot to form: this can suddenly and dramatically block blood flow to a vital organ. Blood clots can also break free and travel in the body to cause blockages elsewhere.
A heart attack occurs if blood flow to part of the heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked. If you don't have emergency treatment to quickly get the blood flowing again, the section of heart muscle starved of oxygen-rich blood can die. A heart attack may be fatal.
Blockages in the arteries that supply the brain can lead to stroke, which damages the section of brain tissue deprived of oxygen-rich blood. Strokes are also sometimes fatal.
Reducing Cholesterol levels
The first place to start in reducing cholesterol is to reduce the amount of cholesterol, trans fats and saturated fats in your foods. This means reducing your intake of animal fats (swap that streaky, juicy piece of steak for a lean source of meat, like a chicken breast). This can also be achieved by steering clear of baked goods, processed foods and fast food, which are the usual suspects when it comes to trans fats intake. At the same time, increase you omega-3 fatty acid intake - either through introducing more salmon, tuna or nuts into your diet or by taking an omega-3 supplement such as fish oil or calamari oil. This will help reduce the amount of fat you have in your blood.
Regular exercise is another mandatory part of reducing cholesterol levels. If you are not currently exercising, start small - 30 minutes of walking every day can be a good way to start a safe exercise regime.
Other potential treatments for cholesterol include:
- Taking a CoQ10 supplement can help maintain overall heart and artery health and reduce the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (i.e. bad cholesterol).
- Preliminary studies suggest diets high in vitamin E can lead to oxidation of bad cholesterol.
- There are other claims made that certain foodstuffs - whole grains, nuts, soy, fibre supplements, green coffee, garlic, olive and fatty fish - can help reduce bad cholesterol absorption. There are an increasing number of spreads and margarines that are also marketed with the claim of reducing cholesterol absorption, although we cannot comment on their efficacy.
- In cases of very high cholesterol, your doctor may need to prescribe medication. Some of these medications can reduce the amount of CoQ10 in your blood stream. As we have already established, CoQ10 is important for cholesterol management, so if your doctor prescribes medication, ask them about the potential benefits of CoQ10 supplementation.
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