What is blood cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance used to produce certain hormones and synthesise vitamin D. It is an important compound in the body and is produced by the liver. Certain foods are high in cholesterol and by eating large quantities of these foods, your body is flooded with cholesterol. Your liver produces cholesterol for the body’s healthy functioning but additional cholesterol beyond the body’s needs can be detrimental.
Types of Cholesterol
Cholesterol cannot travel in the blood on its own. Lipoproteins are a special type of protein that transports cholesterols. There are two main types of lipoproteins – HDL and LDL.
High density lipoprotein (HDL) is also known as the “good cholesterol” and it will carry cholesterol back to the liver where it can be broken down and removed from the system.
Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is called the “bad cholesterol” because it keeps cholesterol circulating in the blood stream and eventually contribute to the cholesterol build up along the walls of youe blood vessels. Triglycerides are another type of fat that is transported by very low density lipoproteins (VLDL). VLDL is related to LDL and has the same effects in terms of narrowing the blood vessels.
Why is Cholesterol Bad For You?
By building up along the walls of your arteries, cholesterol narrows the blood vessel. This means that less blood carrying oxygen and nutrients can reach the body’s cells. It is very dangerous especially if this narrowed blood vessel is blocked by a clot and the blood supply is almost entirely cut off.
If this happens in the blood vessels of the heart (coronary heart disease), you will have a heat attack. In the blood vessels of the brain, it causes a stroke. However, there are a host of other dangers associated with high blood cholesterol that can involve any part of your body, from your head all the way to your fingers and toes.
What Causes High Blood Cholesterol?
While your liver produces cholesterol, it usually regulates its production to ensure that only enough cholesterol that is necessary for the body to function is manufactured. Additional cholesterol is brought into the system through food.
Meat, eggs, dairy and other processed ‘fatty’ foods are high in blood cholesterol. Fruits and vegetables are low in cholesterol. A family history of high blood cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia) may increase your chances of suffering with the problem. If you are obese, smoke, live a sedentary lifestyle with a poor diet, then you are more likely to suffer with high blood cholesterol.
Chronic conditions like diabetes can also increase the risk of high blood cholesterol especially if your diabetes is not managed properly.
How is High Cholesterol Treated?
High blood cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia) requires both lifestyle changes and medication to be properly treated and managed. For most people over 40 year, it is a life long problem that needs ongoing treatment. It is not just about cholesterol but also another lipid in the blood known as triglycerides. The treatment is largely the same for both blood fats and it is essential that regular tests are done to monitor the response to treatment.
Statins are a type of drugs that is widely used through the world to treat and manage high blood cholesterol. It blocks the production of cholesterol in the liver and can even remove cholesterol deposits in the artery walls. The more commonly known statins in South Africa are atorvastatin (Liptor), simvastatin (Zocor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor). Along with a regular exercise program a health diet low in saturated fats, these drugs can help prevent a heart attack or stroke by lowering blood cholesterol.
There are various other drugs that are also used in the treatment of high blood cholesterol such as bile acid binding resins and cholesterol absorption inhibitors. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements which are laden with the ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) may also be helpful. These fatty acids are present in oily fish but most people opt for supplements as part of their daily regimen. Even though treatment may not necessary restore normal blood cholesterol levels in every person, it should be continued to be used for the long term.