October is National Cholesterol Month, so we’re taking the opportunity to explain a little more about cholesterol, what it is, and why it’s important to manage it.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-soluble molecule that is present in the blood and tissue of all animals. It plays an essential role in many human body functions including:
- Being a key component of the structure of every cell membrane
- Acting to initiate the production of Vitamin D and hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone and cortisol (this is produced by your adrenal glands as a response to stress)
- A constituent of bile (bile salt) which plays a role in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.
- Produces serotonin (a hormone that manages mood, sleep & hunger) and dopamine (involved in reward, motivation and memory) in the brain.
What are the different types of cholesterol?
Around 80% of the cholesterol that circulates our bodies is made in the liver. It is then packaged into small parcels, along with triglycerides – the most common form of fat in body cells (produced by dietary intakes of carbohydrate and fat). These packages are known as lipoproteins, they transport the combination of fats around the bloodstream.
There are several types of lipoproteins that are present in the blood, and they each have different purposes and contain different proportions of cholesterol and triglycerides. They are:
- high-density lipoproteins (HDL) – these molecules take excess cholesterol and return it to the liver for excretion
- intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDL) – carry cholesterol to body tissues and can convert to low-density lipoproteins
- low-density lipoproteins (LDL) – act as a major transporter of cholesterol to body tissues. They contain more cholesterol and less triglycerides than VLDL lipoproteins
- very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) – these parcels contain more triglycerides and less cholesterol than LDL lipoproteins. They are produced in the liver and travel to other body tissues.
What about dietary sources of cholesterol?
The remaining 20% of cholesterol in our bodies is introduced to us via dietary fat.
The current understanding is that dietary intake of cholesterol does not directly increase blood serum levels of cholesterol. Carbohydrate intake, specifically simple sugars have been shown to have a far greater impact on VLDL and LDL lipoprotein levels in the blood.
Similarly, triglyceride levels, which make up a large proportion of VLDL lipoproteins, have been shown to increase as a result of a high dietary intake of sugar, trans fats and alcohol.
What does it mean if my cholesterol level is high?
Historically, our focus has been on total levels of cholesterol and LDL cholesterol when it comes to markers for health – LDL cholesterol has been seen as ‘bad’ cholesterol and HDL as ‘good’.
We now know that the key indicators of risk when it comes to cardio-vascular health are the balance of lipoproteins and triglyceride levels in our blood. A reading of total, HDL cholesterol or indeed, triglycerides, doesn’t mean much without looking at the ratios.
You can monitor your cholesterol using home testing kits or your doctor can do it for you – make sure you look at all relevant measures and not just total cholesterol.
How can we maintain a healthy cholesterol level naturally?
There are a number of lifestyle practices and interventions that may help to manage cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They include:
- Reduce alcohol intake – alcohol consumption raises cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. Limiting alcohol intake will help to support your liver health.
- Maintain a healthy bodyweight – losing just 10% of your body weight will help lower your cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood pressure. Body shape or fat distribution is believed to be more of a risk indicator than total bodyweight with central body fat (around your middle) being the most detrimental to health.
- Increase activity levels – moderate exercise (30 minutes of walking) five days per week, will help to manage excess weight and lower blood pressure.
- Reduce sugar intake – avoid refined carbohydrates found in bread, pastries, biscuits, sweets and cakes. Don’t forget that fruit juices, although high in vitamin C, are a high source of sugar.
- Increase fibre intake – a constituent of plant fibre found in rye, barley, oats, rice and wheat has been found to help balance blood sugar and may help balance triglyceride production in the blood.
- Introduce more healthy omega-3 fats into your diet, such as those found in oily fish.
- Stop smoking – smoking has been shown to increase LDL whilst lowering HDL.
If you wish to know more about National Cholesterol Month, please check out these supporting articles:
- September is National Cholesterol Education Month – CDC
- What’s happening this National Cholesterol Month? – Heart UK Organisation
Want to know more?
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