This week is National Cholesterol Week, HEART UK's annual event to raise awareness of the dangers of high cholesterol.
Heart disease is the UK's biggest killer, accounting for around a quarter of all deaths.
The good news is that if you have raised cholesterol alongside other markers of heart disease, it can in almost every case be reversed through dietary and lifestyle measures.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance manufactured by the liver and it plays an important role in your body.
It is a component in the membrane of every cell in your body. It is also involved in hormone production and helps the nervous system to function properly.
When there is inflammation or damaged tissue in the body, cholesterol can accumulate in the areas in need of healing. This may be why raised cholesterol can signify damage in your arteries. LDL or 'bad' cholesterol is a particular concern because this type of cholesterol can become oxidised, leading to tissue damage and hardening of the arteries.
There are three cholesterol readings that you can have. Total cholesterol, LDL ('bad') cholesterol and HDL ('good') cholesterol.
LDL transports cholesterol from the liver through the bloodstream to sites where it is needed. HDL then transports it back again, and so HDL removes unwanted or damaged cholesterol from your arteries. Ideally HDL should make up at least a third of your total cholesterol.
While cholesterol is used as a marker for heart disease, in order to get a clearer idea of your real risk, it's important to consider this marker alongside other markers such as levels of triglycerides, blood pressure and homocysteine.
If you eat a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and fried foods, and low in protective fruits and vegetables, then cholesterol is likely to become damaged by oxidation. This type of diet also provides very little soluble fibre which is essential in eliminating excess cholesterol. In general, the best diet for lowering LDL cholesterol is a low GI diet. This type of diet has been found to be particularly effective in reducing LDL and triglycerides and raising HDL (1).
A huge benefit of a low GI diet is that it has greater levels of soluble fibre which helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the body. It also provides plenty of antioxidants, helping to combat oxidative damage.
Here are 10 simple ways to reduce your cholesterol level, improve your lipid profile and lower your overall risk of heart disease.
1. Increase leafy greens and add raw nuts and seeds to your diet. These boost magnesium, helping to relax your arteries.
2. Drink 8 glasses of water each day. Proper hydration reduces blood pressure by lowering levels of sodium inside cells.
3. Reduce your salt intake. Reducing sodium levels can help to relax the arteries.
4. Add plant sterols. Plant sterols lower 'bad' cholesterol by blocking its absorption. They are present in soya beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
5. Increase low GI carbohydrates. Soluble fibre, in oats, lentils, beans and vegetables, helps to reduce levels of 'bad' cholesterol. Beta-glucans in oats are particularly beneficial.
6. Add antioxidant-rich foods every day. Antioxidants 'mop up' damage within the arteries. Try blueberries, strawberries, plums, tenderstem broccoli and spinach.
7. Boost your omega-3 intake with oily fish, flaxseed oil or omega-3 eggs. Omega-3 fats help to lower triglycerides, lower 'bad' cholesterol and increase 'good' cholesterol.
8. Add garlic, ginger and turmeric to your cooking. Garlic promotes healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Turmeric and ginger help to relax the arteries.
9. Consider supplementing Co-Q10 and Vitamin C. These nutrients reduce damage in the arteries and lower blood pressure.
10. Boost your B Vitamins Homocysteine is actually one of the strongest predictors of heart disease (2). damages the lining of the arteries, but B vitamins convert it into a harmless substance. If you have raised homocysteine levels, then supplementing with B Vitamins can help. Try foods rich in folic acid such as broccoli, asparagus and spinach.
1. Stroke Statistics. British Heart Foundation and The Stroke Association. 2009
2. Jardine MJ et al (2012) The effect of folic acid based homocysteine lowering on cardiovascular events in people with kidney disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2012;344:e3533