Cholesterol: how does it affect my health and wellbeing?

Cholesterol.  What is it?  How does it affect us?  It is in our favourite foods, our bodies produce it and it coats the arteries that help to keep us alive. That is why knowing your cholesterol level is one of the more important numbers you need to know.

 That all said cholesterol does get a bad press – it isn’t all bad.  There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, the “lousy” cholesterol, and HDL, the “happy” cholesterol. We all need cholesterol in order for our bodies to produce cell membranes. But if you have too much of it, it builds up in your blood and sticks to your artery walls.   This can lead to major issues such as having a heart attack or a stroke.

When it comes to HDL (the healthy one!), the more you have the better it is for you.  In your blood, HDL behaves like a predator, gathering up the bad cholesterol and taking it back to the liver, where it is broken down. HDL may also slow down the growth of cholesterol plaques on your artery walls and consequently, the potential blockages will form more slowly.

The higher your HDL is, the lower your risk of heart disease. Even if your total cholesterol is normal, you’re missing out on HDL’s important protective effects if your levels are low.  But the good news is that raising your HDL by just a little can help you a lot. It has been estimated that for every one point increase in HDL, you lower your risk of heart disease by 2-3%. Very high HDL levels (over 75) have been linked to longer lives and extremely low rates of heart disease. Everyone should try to keep their HDL at 50 or higher.

There are lots of things you can do on your own to boost your HDL:

1. Eat good fats: You can find healthy polyunsaturated fats in foods such as olive and canola oil, almonds, walnuts and fish such as salmon and mackerel. Though they don’t contain fat, cranberries and cranberry juice have also been shown to raise HDL.

2. Lose weight: Some research suggests, for every six pounds you lose, your HDL could go up by a whole point. Also, you’ll look and feel better.

3. Quit smoking: Smoking significantly lowers HDL, and quitting has been associated with up to a 10% increase in HDL.

4. Exercise: Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, may also improve HDL within eight weeks.

5. Drink alcohol (in moderation): Drinking one to two alcoholic drinks a day can raise HDL. But don’t overdo it – women should drink no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two.

Healthy Performance offers a cholesterol check as part of their health screening services. Your cholesterol level is just part of your overall cardiovascular risk profile, and your other risk factors must be considered.  If you have any concerns, you should share your cholesterol level with your GP so your tests can be properly interpreted, and an appropriate treatment and prevention plan cam be developed.