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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the body. It is produced by your body and also found in food. While it is needed for good health, too much cholesterol can damage your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.

Why is cholesterol essential?

Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. For example, cholesterol is used to build cell walls and produce some hormones.

About three quarters of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver; the rest comes from the food you eat.

Cholesterol is carried in the blood by lipoproteins. The main types of lipoproteins are high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

Are you at risk?

Find out if you're at risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes or kidney disease using our Risk Checker.

HDL cholesterol is known as 'good' cholesterol. This is because HDL helps to remove cholesterol from your arteries by carrying cholesterol back to your liver for disposal.

LDL cholesterol is known as 'bad' cholesterol. This is because LDL leaves cholesterol in your arteries.

The total cholesterol test is a blood test that measures both HDL and LDL cholesterol. Your doctor may test your cholesterol level to help find out your risk of heart disease or stroke. Other risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes and smoking also need to be considered.

Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can also increase your risk of heart disease.

Triglycerides are usually tested along with cholesterol when you have a cholesterol blood test. The tests for total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides are known as a lipid profile.

Why is high cholesterol bad for health?

Although some cholesterol is needed for your body to function, too much cholesterol can lead to health problems. The extra LDL-cholesterol builds up in the walls of the arteries, forming plaques. Plaques can block your arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through.

illustration of a blocked artery
Excess cholesterol in the blood can stick to the walls of your arteries. This is called plaque and can narrow or block arteries completely.

Lowering cholesterol and maintaining good health

If your cholesterol level is high, there are a number of things you do to lower your cholesterol level.

You can reduce the amount of saturated fat in your food and have a healthy diet. Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • cakes and biscuits
  • fatty cuts of meat
  • butter and full-fat dairy products
  • foods containing coconut or palm oil

Having a high-fibre diet and eating foods enriched with plant sterols can also help to lower your cholesterol level.

If you are not physically active, increasing your physical activity can help to reduce your cholesterol level. Increasing physical activity combined with healthy eating can also help you lose weight if you are overweight and improve your heart health.

If these lifestyle changes are not enough to reduce your cholesterol level, your doctor may advise you to take cholesterol-lowering medicines.

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Last reviewed: July 2019

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