There are almost no external signs of high cholesterol. Testing and tracking your levels regularly through a blood test is the best way to monitor your cholesterol. Having high levels can lead to a number of health risks like heart disease and stroke.

What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol can be described as a build-up of plaque in your arteries, which makes it harder for blood to flow around your body. The development and build-up of this plaque are caused by an imbalance of the lipoproteins within your body. You can keep track of your cholesterol levels and lipoproteins by getting blood tests.

What are lipoproteins?

Lipoproteins are a group of soluble proteins that transport fat in your blood.

The two lipoproteins that you need to be aware of when it comes to your cholesterol are; LDL and HDL.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is produced by the liver and is the main protein that delivers cholesterol around the body. LDL is often dubbed ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is not strictly true - you still need some LDL to survive. But high levels of LDL do result in health risks.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is also produced by the liver and it regulates the build-up of cholesterol in arteries by channelling the excess back to the liver where it is expelled. HDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘good’ cholesterol, as low levels can increase the risks of cardiovascular disease.

When there is an imbalance in your LDL and HDL levels, plaque builds up within your arteries and can result in health complications.

What are the symptoms of having high cholesterol?

Typically there are no explicit signs of high cholesterol. To know your exact cholesterol levels you need to get a cholesterol test. This is normally a blood test. You can either get it from your GP or do an at-home finger-prick blood test.

There are however a number of factors that you can take into consideration:

High blood pressure: Having high blood pressure coupled with high cholesterol puts added pressure on your blood vessels and heart.

Being overweight: The food that you eat along with the level of exercise you do can both contribute to the development of LDL and HDL along with the efficiency of your blood flow.

Smoking: Smoking tobacco or marijuana lowers HDL levels along with damaging the walls of your blood vessels.

Diabetes: Having high blood sugar levels have been shown to elevate triglycerides, which is worth keeping in mind.

Exercise: Regular physical activity helps to raise your HDL levels.

Diet: Eating lots of food that is high in saturated fats raises your LDL.

What are the risks of high cholesterol levels?

There’s a lot of evidence showing that high blood cholesterol levels are clearly linked to:

  • stroke
  • heart attack
  • angina (chest pain)
  • high blood pressure
  • chronic kidney disease

Keep in mind that over half of people who have a heart attack have normal LDL cholesterol levels. Heart disease is very complex and cholesterol is only part of the picture.

How to lower your cholesterol

There are lots of things you can do to lower your cholesterol naturally:

  • avoid foods high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats
  • avoid fast food and fried foods
  • eat high-fibre foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • eat lean sources of protein, like chicken, fish, and legumes
  • eat oily fish, like salmon and mackerel
  • exercise regularly — this can help raise your HDL “good” cholesterol
  • lose weight if you’re overweight
  • don’t smoke

The important thing is to keep track of your levels. Making small changes that you can easily stick to, is much more effective than trying to make huge shifts in your lifestyle. 

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Aisling Moran BSc (Hons)

Written by Aisling Moran BSc (Hons)

26th Apr 2021 • 4 min read