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Cholesterol

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Cholesterol is produced by your body and also found in some foods. While some cholesterol is used in normal body processes, too much cholesterol can damage your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Important measures of cholesterol include HDL (“good cholesterol”) and LDL (“bad cholesterol”).
  • Too much cholesterol in the blood can stick to the walls of your arteries, form a plaque and can narrow or block your arteries.
  • You doctor can calculate your cholesterol levels and use this as one important factor in calculating your risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • Read on to find out what causes dangerously high levels of cholesterol, how to prevent high cholesterol and how to treat it.

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.

Most 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).

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 your age, family history, ethnicity high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, inactivity 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.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

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 and causing a medical problem called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerotic plaques can first narrow, then 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.

How can I lower my cholesterol?

If your bad cholesterol (LDL) 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 plenty of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains and 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: May 2022


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