While most people know that having high cholesterol is harmful for one’s health, many are not completely sure about what that exactly means. While the term cholesterol is very common, its full understanding is sometimes lacking. This is why we decided to compile this brief overview of said medical condition and put all the relevant information at one place. We hope that we will manage to help you get a better understanding of the causes and symptoms of this condition while also taking quick look at the most common treatments.
What’s on this page?
What exactly is cholesterol?
One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to cholesterol is the view that it is a harmful substance. But, cholesterol is actually essential for the proper functioning of bodily cells which use this substance to ensure integrity of the cellular structure. Lipoproteins that make up cholesterol are essential building blocks of cellular walls and are also crucial for the production of vitamin D, bile acids and certain hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen.
While some cholesterol can be absorbed from food during the digestion and especially in the small intestine, a vast majority of it is actually produced by the body, in the liver. There, the fat molecules get merged with certain proteins to make so-called lipoproteins. This new molecule is what actually travels around the body through the bloodstream until they reach the cells that need it.
What are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol?
Cholesterol comes in two main forms:
- Low density lipoproteins (LDLs) also known as ‘bad cholesterol’ are compounds that carry the cholesterol to where it is needed
- High density lipoproteins (HDLs) also known as ‘good cholesterol’ return the cholesterol not used back to the liver where it gets broken down and exerted
Neither of these compounds is necessarily bad, but when there is an imbalance marked by high concentration of LDLs and low concentration of HDLs, the ‘bad cholesterol’ will begin to accumulate within the blood vessels, slowly becoming deposited on the arterial walls in the process known as atherosclerosis.
While this process will make the blood vessels stiffer, the accumulation of lipids will also make them narrower, thus putting additional strain on the cardiovascular system as a whole, including the heart which needs to work with more force to pump the blood throughout the body efficiently. Consequentially, the risk of cardiovascular illnesses will increase. In fact, nearly half of all deaths caused by coronary heart disease have been directly linked to heightened cholesterol levels.
What causes high cholesterol? What are the risk factors?
Similarly to many other health conditions, there are many different and often unrelated factors that can contribute to the development of high cholesterol. Some of them, unfortunately, will remain out of our control – there is strong evidence that seem to indicate that high cholesterol is, at least partially, a hereditary condition. What this means is that while a family history of high cholesterol isn’t a guarantee that the condition will develop, it is a significant contributing factor.
Aside from this, cholesterol levels can also raise due to ageing process or the onset of menopause in women. There are even certain medical conditions that have been known to be linked to this condition. One of these conditions is Familial Hyperlipidaemia which tends to cause occasional spikes in cholesterol concentration in the blood. Others include obesity and diabetes. Certain studies have also shown that people of Asian and especially South Asian origin might be at higher risk of developing the condition.
In addition to this, a family history of heart diseases or stroke might also be considered a risk factor. However, despite this, lifestyle factors have a much more prominent impact than family history of related conditions. The practices singled out as most harmful include:
- Unhealthy diet rich in saturated fats
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Lack of physical activity
Signs and symptoms of high cholesterol
While most illnesses provide certain symptoms once they establish a presence within the body, high cholesterol can remain completely asymptomatic. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that a vast majority of those affected will get diagnosed only after noticing symptoms of cardiovascular conditions that have been caused by heightened cholesterol levels.
However, it is not completely true that high cholesterol does not produce any symptoms. In some people, this condition can cause small raised bumps around the knuckles or the Achilles as well as yellowish tint of the eyeball – both of these are the physical proof of cholesterol deposits. However, these signs can be very easy to miss so testing is usually the only way to be completely certain.
Testing for high cholesterol is rather simple and it involves a blood test, usually a finger-prick test.
Prevention and treatment of high cholesterol
Preventing high cholesterol is not that hard and taking these precautions will have a noticeable beneficial effect on your general health and wellbeing. Most importantly, you should try to ensure a healthy diet that will include a lot of fibre. More specifically, you should eat more:
- Soluble fibre (beta glucan)
- Rapeseed oil
In addition to this, physical activity in the form of light exercise is highly recommended for those leading a sedentary lifestyle. And, it goes without saying that quitting smoking and curbing alcohol consumption are absolutely vital if you are affected by this condition.
High cholesterol medicines
The single most common type of medications prescribed for the treatment of high cholesterol includes pharmaceutical compounds known as statins1 (Simvastatin, Lescol, Lipostat, Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, Pravastatin or Fluvastatin), but in certain scenarios, when statins fail to produce the desired results, a cholesterol absorption inhibitor Ezeterol might be recommended.2