All About Cholesterol
by Joshua Wong, Senior Patient Care Pharmacist
We often hear that cholesterol is bad for our health, but that’s not entirely true! Essential for the body to function, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that helps in the building of cell membranes.
Cholesterol also plays a role in the production of bile acids, a substance that aids in the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins, steroid hormones and vitamin D.
Bad cholesterol VS Good cholesterol
As cholesterol is not soluble in the blood, it has to be transported by some special carriers known as lipoprotein.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) transports cholesterol from the liver to the cells and causes cholesterol to build up on the walls of the arteries. This leads to health complications, hence LDL is also termed ‘bad cholesterol’.
On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as ‘good cholesterol’ as it carries excess cholesterol from the cells to the liver. This prevents the deposition of cholesterol on arterial walls.
Causes of high cholesterol
Though cholesterol is important for most body functions, high levels of it can lead to serious health implications.
High cholesterol in the body usually stems from various factors including age, gender, heredity and unhealthy lifestyles.
Age & Gender
As the body ages, the level of cholesterol in the body will rise. Usually, women will have lower cholesterol levels than men before menopause, and this trend is reversed once women reach menopausal age.
Certain ethnic groups, such as South Asians, are more prone to high cholesterol.
Familial hypercholesterolemia is also an hereditary form of high cholesterol that can be passed within the family.
Unhealthy lifestyles that can lead to high cholesterol include indulging in a diet high in saturated or trans fats and not exercising enough.
Being overweight or obese can also increase the risk of having high cholesterol in the body. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above is likely to elevate LDL levels and reduce HDL levels.
Smoking can also affect the cholesterol levels by reducing the HDL levels in the body. Health conditions such as diabetes and kidney diseases can also increase cholesterol levels in the body.
Cholesterol & heart health
High cholesterol leads to health problems as the cholesterol is deposited on the walls of blood vessels, narrowing or even blocking blood flow.
Arteries that are narrowed or blocked will reduce the blood supply to cells or organs, ultimately depriving them from oxygen and nutrients. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.
When atherosclerosis occurs in the arteries that supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart, heart functions will be compromised. Coronary arteries that are partially blocked can result in angina, or chest pain.
If the coronary arteries are completely blocked and cause damage to parts of the heart muscles, a heart attack is very likely to occur.
Cholesterol & other health problems
Cholesterol is circulated throughout the body via blood vessels, so high cholesterol levels affect the part of the body where cholesterol build-up occurs.
Apart from the heart, the blockage of arteries in the brain will deprive brain cells of oxygen and nutrients, causing a stroke.
If cholesterol is deposited in blood vessels other than in the heart and brain, it can lead to peripheral vascular disease (PVD). PVD leads to pain or numbness, and if left untreated, it can cause open sores or the death of tissues.
How to improve cholesterol levels
If you’re looking to improve your cholesterol levels, the first thing you’ll have to do is make changes to your lifestyle.
Exercising regularly has shown to increase HDL and reduce LDL in the body. Individuals who are overweight or obese should watch their diet and do physical activities for at least 30 minutes a day.
Smokers should quit smoking as early as possible as tobacco smoking can affect cholesterol levels and harm the body in many other ways.
For a complete, healthy diet, swop saturated fats with unsaturated fats, and avoid trans fat when you dine. Find out where you’ll find the respective fats and what foods you should avoid.
Harmful to the body, saturated fats increase the total cholesterol and LDL levels.
Saturated fats are usually found in animal products (e.g. lard, butter) and dairy products (e.g. full cream milk, cheese). They are also found in some plant oils such as palm oil and coconut oil.
Unsaturated fats are usually found in plant oils (e.g. olive oil, corn oil), seeds, nuts and fatty fishes (e.g. salmon). They increase the HDL levels and reduce the LDL levels, making them beneficial to the body.
Trans fat can be obtained from animal sources, but are mainly produced during food processing. They have proven to increase LDL levels and reduce HDL levels, which can lead to health problems.