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.

Physical Activity:
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:

  • cigarette smoking
  • diabetes
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • low HDL cholesterol
  • family history of premature heart disease

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:

  • Herbal teas which increase liver detoxification and cholesterol elimination – Dandelion Root, Chicory, Burdock
  • Start each day with a half a lemon squeezed into some warm water first thing in the morning. This stimulates liver and gall bladder function, cleanses the bowel and primes digestion for the day ahead.
  • Reduce alcohol intake
  • Herbal medicines greatly help. Herbal treatment of high cholesterol focuses on liver health: Herbs such as Globe Artichoke, Golden Seal, Dandelion and Milk Thistle support and protect liver function and are indicated for the treatment of cholesterol. Bitter herbal preparations such as Dandelion Root tea are also traditionally used to support liver function. Speak to a qualified health practitioner for a specific treatment plan.

Diet tips for high cholesterol levels:

  • All grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are void of cholesterol. So, should be consumed freely in the diet. Eat mainly a vegetarian diet with plenty of grains, fruits and vegetables. Reduce the amount of animal fats consumed.
  • Increase fibre: Certain forms of fibre such as oat bran, slippery elm powder, flax seed and psyllium seeds encourage cholesterol excretion. Psyllium Husks (a type of fibre) lowers total serum cholesterol levels by up to 15% by inhibiting the absorption of dietary Cholesterol. Take 1 tablespoon at night before bed in a glass of warm water.
  • Apple pectin has an affinity to cholesterol, it binds to it and facilitates the excretion of it. Grate an apple onto your porridge in the morning or take stewed apples for breakfast.
  • Garlic, Ginger and Onions should be used as much as possible in cooking as it can reduce blood cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Reducing saturated fats (oils) and trans fatty acids, refined carbohydrates and sugar. 95% of the average daily consumption of trans-fatty acids is in the form of partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil products such as “easy-spread butters”, margarine (which contains 20% trans-fatty acids) and vegetable shortenings. Trans-fatty acids are “hidden” in many processed foods that use partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils in their manufacture (e.g. doughnuts, biscuits).  Most commercial dietary oils have been subjected to partial-hydrogenation and therefore contain large amounts of trans-fatty acids. Avoid fried and fatty foods.
  • Increase Omega 3 essential fatty acids in the form of deep sea oily fish (Salmon, Snapper, Mackerel, Anchovies, Cod, Sardines, Halibut), avocado, nuts and seeds, hemp seed oil, flaxseed oil
  • Oats greatly reduce cholesterol levels. Take porridge or muesli for breakfast.
  • Lecithin sprinkled on your food, cereal, in a smoothie helps to emulsify fats, lipids and oils and the breakdown of cholesterol in the digestion.
  • Avoid refined sugar and minimise processed carbohydrates (white breads, pastas and foods made from refined flour – biscuits, cakes, etc.)


Lifestyle factors to reduce cholesterol

  • Stop smoking if you are a smoker.
  • Achieve your ideal body weight, not only will you look and feel better, but you will reduce your risk of heart disease and other serious health problems. If you need help in this area, our practitioner is able to help you with a sensible approach to weight loss.
  • Manage stress as it alone can make quite a significant impact on cholesterol. Meditate regularly.


Author: Tegan Wallis