The Facts About Cholesterol

Of all the risk factors for coronary heart disease, a high blood cholesterol level is probably the most widely publicised. Here are the basics


Posted: 5 June 2002

Of all the risk factors for coronary heart disease, a high blood cholesterol level is probably the most widely publicised. In fact, cholesterol is essential for good health, but the body is efficient at making its own and there’s no need to get any in food. Problems arise when the liver produces more than the body requires.

Cholesterol is transported around the body attached to carriers called lipoproteins. Low density lipoproteins (LDL) carry most of the cholesterol, taking it from the liver and depositing it on the walls of the arteries. High density lipoproteins (HDL), on the other hand, carry it from the arteries to the liver where it is broken down. So, the more HDL, the better.

Extra cholesterol in the blood stays on the artery walls and, over time, the build-up causes arteries to narrow so that blood-flow to the heart is restricted. Abnormally high levels of LDL and blood cholesterol are linked to a genetic predisposition and a diet high in saturated animal fats. A cholesterol-lowering diet is recommended for anyone with levels above 5 millimoles per litre (mmol/l). According to the British Heart Foundation, the average blood cholesterol for men in England is 5.8mmol/l and for women 5.9mmol/l. Almost a third of men and women have levels considered dangerously high.

About one in 500 people in Britain have inherited high blood levels – a condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia. Unidentifiable lumps and bumps on the knuckles or other parts of the body should be checked as they could be deposits of cholesterol.

The British Heart Foundation warns against self-tests and mobile cholesterol testing. The only way to diagnose high cholesterol accurately is to have a simple blood test by your GP. However, if you know you have a family history of heart disease, if you smoke or suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure, then you are at a much greater risk.

Conventional treatment:
Cholesterol levels can be lowered using drugs, but a diet low in saturated fats is also needed. Professor Michael Oliver of the National Heart and Lung Institute says, “Drugs called statins are good at decreasing blood cholesterol levels. They have been shown to reduce the number of deaths by 42 per cent in men who have suffered a heart attack.” Other cholesterol-lowering medication isn’t used as extensively.

Alternative treatment:
Chinese medicine and homeopathy can work with mildly elevated blood cholesterol levels. Fish oil supplements containing the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA can help.

For more information:
Contact the British Heart Foundation.


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