We see the word cholesterol mentioned in food advertising, scare-mongering articles and doctor’s noticeboards, but how many of us understand what it is, what it does and how to make sure ours is healthy? This article will take a deep dive into what is a normal cholesterol value, genetic and dietary factors that affect cholesterol, and supplementation.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a sterol formed of carbon hydrogen and oxygen. It’s found in most human tissues but is synthesised in the liver. Typically, cholesterol is deemed as a negative word, but contradictory to this thought, it’s essential for life. Cholesterol’s role is to maintain the fluidity of all cell membranes allowing free movement of objects in and out of the cell, in addition to, synthesising hormones, vitamin D and bile acids.
The majority of our cholesterol is synthesised in the liver (80%) but we also consume cholesterol through the diet. Particularly in a diet rich in animal proteins. Once cholesterol is synthesised it cannot travel on its own within the blood because of its fatty structure. So, it gets packaged into lipoproteins, known as LDL (low-density lipoproteins), vLDL (very low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (lipoproteins), these may be terms you are more familiar with.
The roles of LDL is to carry dietary lipids from the liver to storage around the body such as in visceral fat stores around the organs and within arterial walls. Whereas, HDL is responsible for transporting excess dietary lipids back to the liver to be converted into bile acids. Considering these roles, it’s easy to understand how an imbalance of these lipoproteins may cause issues and increase the risk of disease within the body.
Normal Cholesterol Values
According to the NHS, the below table highlights healthy and unhealthy values for cholesterol levels.
5 or below
1 or above
3 or below
4 or below
2.3 or below
According to British Heart Foundation (BHF) statistics, approximately half of the UK population are living with total cholesterol levels above the recommended guidelines (5mmol/L). The risk of this is an increased chance of developing heart disease including an increased risk of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular events and strokes.
For some people, having high cholesterol is not caused by lifestyle factors. Instead, they are born with a genetic risk factor for high cholesterol called familial hypercholesterinaemia. There are 3 genetic factors that influence this all of which lead to LDL cholesterol building up in the blood. If left untreated this can lead to the very early onset of heart disease. If this is caught early, then this can be treated with medicine and a change of diet.
According to BHF statistics, approximately 7-8 million adults in the UK are currently taking lipid-lowering drugs, such as statins. In 2016, lipid-lowering medicines accounted for 14% of the most commonly prescribed medicines. The cost to the NHS for lipid-regulating medications in May 2019 was £16,749,328.44.
Typically, medication is introduced as a last resort effort to minimise the risk of high cholesterol. More often than not healthcare practitioners will attempt to work alongside the patient, encouraging preventative routes such as a change in diet first.
Diet & Nutrition
As discussed above, 20% of total cholesterol comes from dietary cholesterol. This is found in animal-based products including meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Despite eggs being rich in cholesterol studies demonstrate that these have little to no effect on total cholesterol. Especially when eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
According to the NHS, a reduction in saturated fats can help to reduce blood cholesterol. This includes reducing (but not excluding) meats, cheeses, butter, cakes, biscuits, desserts and processed meals. When you begin to reduce these foods, this leaves a gap in the diet to introduce something healthier and beneficial for you, this means increasing unsaturated sources of fat. This includes foods such as oily fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and plant-based oils.
Another way to decrease cholesterol is by increasing dietary fibre, more specifically insoluble and soluble fibres. Studies have demonstrated that anywhere between 2-10grams of soluble fibre per day can generate small but significant decreases in total cholesterol. For example, 3 g soluble fibre from oats (3 servings of oatmeal, 28 g each) can decrease total and LDL cholesterol by approximately 0.13 mmol/L. Easy ways to increase your fibre intake includes taking a fibre supplement, switching to wholemeal, including a cereal at breakfast, leaving skins on fruits and vegetables, or swapping your usual snack to nuts and seeds.
There are a number of supplements that have been proven to help lower total cholesterol and help rebalance good cholesterol. These monacolin K from red yeast rice and plant sterols.
Plant sterols are a very popular and well studies way to naturally reduce cholesterol. Plant sterols work by mimicking the shape of cholesterol. As a result, they block the receptor that allows dietary cholesterol to absorb into the body. Studies have shown that a consistent intake of 1.5-3 g plant sterols can help to lower blood cholesterol and lower disease risk factors associated with high cholesterol. In reference to food sources, this refers to one plant sterol yoghurt drink such as benecol, 203 portions of fortified spread, 250ml fortified milk or 2 teaspoons of fortified yoghurt. In addition, evidence states that in just 2-3 weeks the Consumption of plant sterols in the range of:
- 5 to 2.4g daily can lower LDL-cholesterol by 7 to 10%
- 5-3g daily can lower LDL-cholesterol by 10 to 12.5%
Vytaliving sells an incredible supplement we call the cholesterol buster that contains 10mg of monacolin K from red yeast rice. Monacolin K is approved to have a beneficial effect to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels. One study compared the use of red yeast rice capsules vs dietary changes alone in participants with high cholesterol levels. The supplemental group took 10mg of monacolin K a day, vs the control group who made dietary changes. There was a significant difference between the supplemental and non-supplemental groups LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by the end of the trial period, 9.19% and 12.29% respectively. HDL (good) cholesterol remained unchanged in both groups. The Vytaliving cholesterol buster comes with 60 vegan capsules to last you 2 months.
If you have any concerns over your cholesterol or familial high cholesterol runs in the family then you may like to get tested. This can be done via a blood test at your local GP surgery. In the meantime, there is so much you can do to take control of your cholesterol health – pack in that plant-based power.