Cholesterol is a soft, waxy fat-like substance residing in our bloodstream and just about every cell in the body. While on the whole it gets a bad wrap it is actually vitally important for maintaining a healthy body. Cholesterol is needed to form cell membranes, some hormones including cortisol, oestrogen and testosterone, it is a precursor for the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin and is an important factor in many other biological functions in the body.
A blood test will help to determine the level of cholesterol in your blood and when it is high it is referred to as hypercholesterolemia.
Lipoproteins help move cholesterol through the bloodstream. The two most important lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDLs are often referred to as the ‘bad’ cholesterol because they are the main cholesterol carrier in the blood. If high amounts of LDL cholesterol circulate in the blood, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries causing plaque, which can clog arteries, leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis and a higher risk of heart disease. HDLs are known as the ‘good’ cholesterol because they transport cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver.
A higher-level of HDL compared to LDL is considered to reduce the risk of heart disease.
High cholesterol often goes unnoticed until you have a blood test.
Signs and symptoms that may be associated with high cholesterol or atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, angina, leg cramps, weakness and dizziness. Interestingly a diagonal crease on your earlobe has been statistically linked with an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
Why it happens?
Factors that can cause or increase the risk of high cholesterol include:
- Excessive dietary fat intake or increased cholesterol production by our liver
- Cigarette smoking
- High intake of coffee (>6cups daily)
- Genetic tendency
What natural therapies can help?
- Policosanol has been documented to aid cholesterol in a number of ways, including lowering total and LDL cholesterol levels, increasing HDL cholesterol and helping protect LDL cholesterol from free radical damage.
- Fish oil, vitamin C, vitamin E, garlic and plant sterols have been studied independently of each other and positive results have been found for reducing LDL cholesterol. Vitamin E thins the blood (anticoagulant), thus improving blood flow. It also works as an antioxidant by reducing oxidation of LDL cholesterol and helps reduce cholesterol plaque formation. Omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels. To lower LDL cholesterol the Heart Foundation recommends adults consume
2-3g of plant sterols daily from plant sterol enriched foods.
- Coenzyme Q10 and curcurmin (from turmeric) have been shown along with vitamin D to exert antioxidant activity, helping to protect cholesterol from oxidation.
- Globe artichoke, St Mary’s thistle, dandelion root support liver health. The liver is the main processing centre for cholesterol and dietary fat.
- Lecithin – early studies found that lecithin can reduce cholesterol.
- Chromium – may help reduce high cholesterol levels.
- Niacin has been found to reduce LDL cholesterol (bad fats) and increase HDL cholesterol (good fats) and reduce total serum cholesterol.
- Selenium – lower levels are linked with an increased risk of heart disease.
- Calcium and magnesium – maintenance of heart muscle.
- Carnitine is synthesised from the amino acids lysine and methionine and is important for fat metabolism. It has been found to increase HDL levels and decrease cholesterol.
Did you know?
- Increase levels of soluble fibre from foods such as psyllium husks, fruits, vegetables, oat bran, barley, flaxseed, dried beans, lentils, peas, soymilk and soy products. These can help to decrease cholesterol in combination with a low fat diet.
- Choose low fat options when cooking or getting take away food and serve smaller portions.
- Limit the intake of saturated fats eg animal fats. Choose monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids eg flaxseed, fish oil and safflower oils.
- Decrease coffee intake.
- Exercise – brisk walking everyday will help to shed extra kilos.
- Tobacco smoking – seriously consider giving up. The risk of a heart attack or stroke is greater if you smoke.
- Excessive alcohol (binged drinking) can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and also lead to weight gain.
- Stress places extra stress on your heart – exercise and stretching helps clear your mind and relax your muscles. Try deep breathing exercises and meditation if you can’t slow down.