What is high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is found in the blood. Some of our cholesterol is produced in the liver and the rest is taken from the food we eat. If the levels of cholesterol become too high, it can collect in blood vessel walls which puts you at increased risk of various heart problems. The process of fat building up in your blood vessel walls is called atherosclerosis.
What are the different types of cholesterol?
There are 2 main types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. One is often called ‘good cholesterol’ and the other ‘bad cholesterol’.
HDL, which stands for high density lipoprotein, is known as ‘good cholesterol’. Its role is to remove cholesterol from the blood and send it to the liver. Once it has reached the liver, it is broken down and removed from the body. This helps manage your overall levels of cholesterol.
LDL, which stands for low density lipoprotein, is known as ‘bad cholesterol’. This cholesterol remains in your blood circulation and can build up in blood vessel walls if there’s too much of it. This leads to plaque formation which reduces blood flow.
If you have a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, there are other values that might be given to you, including:
This is the total amount of cholesterol, including both HDL and LDL.
Total cholesterol to HDL ratio
This looks at the relationship between the total amount of cholesterol in your body and how much HDL you have.
This is another form that is similar to LDL cholesterol. It is important that these levels are not too high.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
Most people who have high cholesterol have no symptoms. This makes it even more important to go for regular health checks to find any hidden risks to your wellbeing.
The only point you may experience symptoms is when your high cholesterol has progressed leading to the formation of an atherosclerotic plaque. This can cause heart problems. Atherosclerosis may cause:
These conditions may cause symptoms such as:
Feeling short of breath
Pain in your arms and legs
How common is high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is a very common condition and can affect anyone.
High cholesterolin children
High cholesterol in children is rare but can happen. The suggested management for high cholesterol in children is lifestyle changes. Your doctor may advise eating healthier and exercising more often.
What causes high cholesterol?
Multiple factors can contribute to the causes of high cholesterol. These include:
Parts of your lifestyle that increase your chance of having high cholesterol:
Eating too much saturated fat
Not doing enough exercise
Drinking too much alcohol
Carrying weight around your middle
Some medical conditions can cause you to have higher levels of cholesterol, these include:
Other factors that may increase your risk of high cholesterol are:
Age – cholesterol often rises with age
Family history of heart problems or high cholesterol
Sex – men are more likely to have high cholesterol than women
How is high cholesterol diagnosed?
High cholesterol will be diagnosed through a blood test done by your doctor. Your cholesterol levels in your blood will be tested, including levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol.
How to lower cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, you can lower your levels with some lifestyle changes. These include:
Doing regular exercise
Drinking less alcohol
Eating food with less fat
If you are changing your lifestyle to lower your cholesterol, you may be changing what you eat. A low cholesterol diet means eating:
More wholegrain foods eg. brown rice
More fruits and vegetables
Less sugary foods eg. cake
Less fatty foods eg. fatty meats, cream
For a while, people believed that eating eggs may lead to high cholesterol levels. However we now know that eggs can still be consumed as part of a healthy and balanced diet, even for people with high cholesterol.
How is high cholesterol treated?
After suggestions of lifestyle changes to manage high cholesterol, you may be given medication. Most of the time, this medicine is a statin. Statins act by decreasing the amount of cholesterol your body makes. Examples include simvastatin or atorvastatin.
When should I speak to a doctor?
If you fear you may have high cholesterol due to diet or risk factors, contact your doctor and they can offer you a health check.
How can Livi help?
A Livi doctor can talk to you about your symptoms and give you advice on the next best steps. They may suggest a blood test in the first instance to explore your cholesterol levels.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi