Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in Australia. According to the Australian Heart Foundation, CVD kills one Australian every 12 minutes. This is such an alarming statistic.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to all diseases and conditions involving the heart and blood vessels. The main types of CVD in Australia are coronary heart disease, stroke, heart attack and heart failure.
CVD affects one in six Australians or 3.72 million people, and claimed the lives of 43,603 Australians (30% of all deaths) in 2013 – deaths that are largely preventable (The Heart Foundation.)
One of the major known risk factors for heart disease is high cholesterol.
When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries, causing a process called atherosclerosis. The arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked. Atherosclerosis affecting the heart is called Coronary Artery Disease, and it can cause a heart attack. When atherosclerosis blocks arteries that supply blood to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that occurs naturally in the body. It gets a bad rap but is actually an important substance as it has a protective and building role in the body. Its needed to make the walls surrounding the body’s cells, and is the basic material that is converted to create certain hormones such as our sex and adrenal hormones.
It’s interesting to note that your body makes all the cholesterol you need. You need only a small amount of good fat in your diet to make enough cholesterol to stay healthy.
The fat and cholesterol you eat is absorbed in the intestines and transported to the liver. The liver converts fat into cholesterol, and releases cholesterol into the bloodstream. This is what healthy cholesterol production is and should be. The trouble starts when our liver becomes sluggish or we overeat bad fats and high cholesterol foods.
There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (called the “bad” cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).
High levels of LDL cholesterol are linked to atherosclerosis, which is the accumulation of cholesterol-rich fatty deposits in arteries. This can cause arteries to narrow or become blocked, slowing or stopping the flow of blood to vital organs, especially the heart and brain.
What Affects Cholesterol Levels?
Cholesterol can be introduced into the body from dietary sources, but is also manufactured within the body in the liver. Only about 30% of the body’s cholesterol content is derived from dietary sources. High Saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat can make your blood cholesterol level go up. Saturated fat is the main culprit, but cholesterol in foods also matters to a degree. So obviously reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level if it’s extremely high, so is a good place to start. But fat isn’t the main culprit in this process of cholesterol production and heart disease, and has had a bad rap over the years.
What is actually more damaging than saturated fat is sugar! Sugar causes insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, high triglycerides, lower HDL (good) cholesterol and dangerous small LDL (bad) cholesterol. It also triggers the inflammation we now know is at the root of heart disease. It’s this inflammation in the artery walls that allows the cholesterol to stick, creating the build-up of plaque and hardening of the artery. So, fats, including saturated fats, have been unfairly blamed over the years which has led to the increase in production of ‘fat free foods’ which generally means ‘high sugar.’
Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL (bad) and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL (good) and lower your triglyceride levels.
Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular physical activity can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also helps you lose weight. You should try to be physically active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days.
Other factors include:
Age and Gender:
As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels rise. Before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.
Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
What is healthy cholesterol levels?
Health authorities recommend that cholesterol levels should be no higher than 5.5 mmol per liter if there are no other risk factors present. We really need to look at the ration between LDL (bad) and HDL (good.)
If there are other cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure or pre-existing cardiovascular (heart) disease, then the aim for the LDL (bad) levels would be less than 2 mmol/l.
Approximately half of all adult Australians have a blood cholesterol level above 5 mmol/l. This makes high blood cholesterol a major health concern in Australia.
Risk factors for high cholesterol levels
High cholesterol levels in the body are an indicator for an increased risk of developing heart disease (atherosclerosis, arteriosclerosis), and not a disease in itself. There is no quick fix for reducing cholesterol in the body, it takes time (at least 6 months) and the combination of diet, lifestyle and exercise changes for the long term.
Deciding when cholesterol levels are a health issue and when to treat these levels can be based on two factors: lipid levels (total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL,) and the presence of additional risk factors, as follows:
Tips for decreasing cholesterol levels
Supporting liver function is the key when decreasing cholesterol levels. The role of the liver to reduce cholesterol from the body and stop it being recirculated.
Here are a few tips to support liver health:
Diet tips for high cholesterol levels:
Lifestyle factors to reduce cholesterol
Author: Tegan Wallis