Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the cell membranes of all body tissues and also found in the bloodstream. It is mainly made in the body (by the liver) from the saturated fats in food. Very little is found ready-made in food except eggs, liver and kidneys.
Cholesterol is used to make hormones (e.g. sex hormones) and to build cell walls. It is important for brain and nerve function and the synthesis of vitamin D, and the liver converts it into bile acids, which help us digest our food.
What happens if cholesterol levels rise in the bloodstream?
High cholesterol levels in the blood will cause the artery wall to take up large quantities, which will lead to atheroma (fatty deposits on the artery wall). This happens faster if you smoke. The pressure in the arteries will increase as the space for the blood to pass through becomes narrower, and blood pressure goes up as a result. If the arteries leading to the heart are affected, the likelihood of a heart attack increases.
On the other hand, low cholesterol levels have been linked to violent tendencies, depression and suicide. We need a healthy balance.
Factors that affect cholesterol levels
- We may have inherited factors that mean we take up cholesterol from the blood into the tissues at a slow rate, increasing the amount of cholesterol measurable in the bloodstream.
- The liver is capable of synthesizing the cholesterol we need, so additional sources in our diet may cause us to have a surplus. It is unlikely that most people will be eating liver, kidneys or eggs in the vast quantities needed to make a difference to cholesterol levels. It is more likely, however, that we are eating large amounts of saturated fats, which are then turned into cholesterol. The consumption of saturated fats is the dietary factor most likely to affect our cholesterol levels.
- Dietary intake of hydrogenated or trans fats will also encourage the production of cholesterol, particularly of the type that increases cholesterol levels in the tissues and bloodstream.
- High calorie intake will also influence our health because the extra calories are stored as fat.
What can we do to reduce cholesterol levels?
- Cut high sugar foods and refined carbohydrates out of our diet, to stop them being converted into cholesterol.
- Reduce saturated fats and trans fats in our diets, to reduce the production of cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Avoid coffee and alcohol, to improve liver function.
- Use extra virgin olive oil in cooking.
- Increase consumption of beans, oats, green leafy vegetables, apples, oranges, garlic, onions, buckwheat, grapes, leeks, cabbage, bananas, pineapple and ginger.
- Eat oily fish – herring, sardines, pilchards, mackerel and salmon.
- If you are using the Pill or HRT, talk to your doctor about alternatives.
- Stop smoking.
- Increase exercise levels.
- Tackle stress levels, as stress can contribute to the production of cholesterol.
Supplements to help reduce cholesterol levels
- Cynara is a tincture of globe artichoke, which has been found to inhibit the manufacture of cholesterol, whilst encouraging its breakdown and reducing its absorption in the gut. Cynara also increases bile production and its movement into the intestines, thereby improving the way dietary fats are metabolised. Take 20 drops in a little water or juice, 2-3 times daily.
- Plant sterols can help prevent the absorption of LDL cholesterol if taken before meals.
- Homocysteine, an amino acid, has been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries accompanied by the build up of fatty plaques) and coronary heart disease. Homocysteine levels will be high if vitamin B is lacking in the diet, in which case a vitamin B supplement will be useful.