What's the difference between good and bad cholesterol? Why is it important to know your cholesterol levels and what can you do if they're not right? Read on for all you need to know.
Cholesterol is essential for a healthy body - it helps make cell membranes, hormones and some of the acids that digest fats. It's a fatty substance known as a lipid that is found in small amounts in foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products, but is mostly made by the body in the liver.
But if you're producing too much cholesterol, it can build up in the body and cause heart and circulation problems. Lifestyle factors, such as being overweight, eating a diet high in saturated fat, and drinking too much alcohol, play a part in determining whether you might have high cholesterol. About one in 500 people inherit the condition from a parent (this is known as familial hypercholesterolaemia).
A high level of cholesterol in your blood, together with high levels of lipids known as triglycerides, can increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease. If cholesterol builds up on the walls of your arteries, the blood flow to your heart and the rest of your body can become restricted. This increases the risk of a blood clot developing, which means you could have a heart attack (read more about heart attacks on NHS Choices) or a stroke (NHS Choices has more information on strokes).
Doctors take high cholesterol more seriously in people who also have diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of stroke or heart disease.
You may have heard the terms 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol. Simply put, bad or LDL cholesterol carries cholesterol into the body, and good or HDL cholesterol mops up any you don't need, by taking it to the liver. So it's better have higher levels of HDL or good cholesterol, and lower levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol.
Never had a cholesterol test? Ask your GP for a test if you can tick one or more of the below boxes. (Or do it yourself on the NHS website.) You can buy home tests from pharmacies but GP tests are considered more accurate. It's usually done first thing in the morning, as you have to fast for 12 hours beforehand. The magic numbers you need are a total cholesterol level of five or under, and an LDL level of less than three.
Get tested if:
• You're very overweight (by more than 12.7kg or two stone)
• You're over 40
• You have a family history of heart disease, or have had it yourself
• A close family member has been diagnosed with a cholesterol-related condition (this means you may also be at risk)
• You have a kidney condition, an underactive thyroid gland or an inflamed pancreas (pancreatitis). These conditions can cause increased levels of cholesterol or triglycerides.
Do: Eat more fibre (wholegrains, fruit and vegetables), oily fish and nuts. These foods can help reduce cholesterol, according to the British Heart Foundation.
Do: At least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. This keeps your heart and circulation system healthy.
Do: Measure your middle - keep your waist measurement under 80cm (32in) if you’re a woman, and 94cm (37in) if you’re a man. Fat around the middle increases heart problems.
Do: Switch to cholesterol-lowering spreads and yogurts if you've tested for high cholesterol. They contain plant sterols and stanols which studies show can reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Do: See your GP if you have a family history of high cholesterol to talk about statins (cholesterol-lowering medication).
Don't: Make a habit of binge drinking (more than 6 units in one session) - it can raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Try to stick to healthy alcohol limits (14 units a week for women, 21 for men).
Don't: Smoke - it increases your risk of heart disease. Yet another reason to quit!
Don't: Eat too much saturated fat. Keeps foods like fry-ups, pies, pizzas and pastries, burgers and sausages, biscuits and cakes, and anything dripping in butter, cream or cheese as treats, not every day foods. This will protect your health in general and lower your cholesterol.