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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance called a lipid which is found in body. It’s present in every cell and is vital for good health. Cholesterol is made by the liver but is also found in certain foods, such as those high in saturated fats.

Cholesterol is carried through the body by proteins. The cholesterol and proteins together are called lipoproteins.

The two main types of lipoproteins are:

  1. High-density lipoproteins (HDL): these carry cholesterol away from the cells and to the liver, where they are broken down and leave the body as waste products. HDL cholesterol is known as good cholesterol.
  2. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL): these carry cholesterol from the liver to the cells that need it, but if there is too much cholesterol for the cells, it can build up in the arteries. LDL cholesterol is known as bad cholesterol.

Maintaining normal cholesterol levels in the body is crucial to help prevent other more dangerous health conditions developing.

What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is characterised as anything over 4mmol/l. Millimoles per litre of blood (mmol/l) is the unit used to measure your cholesterol levels.

With regard to good and bad cholesterol levels, ideally your LDL cholesterol level would be under 2 mmol/l and your HDL cholesterol level would be above 1 mmol/l.

These levels are especially important if you have or are at risk of heart and circulatory disease.

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol has no symptoms by itself, but it can lead to serious conditions of the heart and circulation if you have it. Your GP can advise you about cholesterol testing and if you should have your levels checked.

If you find yourself with angina, which is chest pain that comes on with exertion and goes again when you rest, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. This can be a sign that you have high cholesterol.

What causes high cholesterol?

There are many factors that can cause high cholesterol levels, but one of the main factors is an unhealthy lifestyle. Eating a diet high in saturated fat, smoking, not exercising, being overweight and having a large waist measurement can all contribute to this.

Other causes of high cholesterol include kidney problems, liver problems, type 2 diabetes, and an underactive thyroid gland.  

There is also an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolemia that can cause a person to have high cholesterol even if they eat healthily.

How can you treat high cholesterol?

There are medicines called statins that reduce cholesterol levels, but they are only used to treat those most at risk from developing cardiovascular disease.

To help reduce high cholesterol and maintain good cholesterol levels, you can do the following:

  • Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise regularly
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Avoid smoking

What can you do to help prevent high cholesterol?

The healthier your day to day life is the more likely you are to prevent high cholesterol levels in the future. You can follow some of the specific steps above to help reduce high cholesterol now and maintain normal cholesterol levels going forward.


Frequently Asked Questions

What does cholesterol do?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is found in all the cells of the body. It’s crucial for your health and is only a problem when your bad cholesterol levels get too high.

What does high cholesterol mean?

High cholesterol is when the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood become too great for your body to use. This can then build up in the artery walls and lead to more serious health problems in the future.

What should your cholesterol level be?

Ideally, your cholesterol levels should be under 4 millimoles per litre of blood. More specifically, your HDL level should be above 1 mmol/l and your LDL level should be under 2 mmol/l.

What is hyperlipidemia?

Hyperlipidemia (also spelt hyperlipidaemia ) is a term used to describe high levels of fatty substances, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, in the blood.

What is the difference between hypercholesterolemia and hyperlipidemia?

Hyperlipidemia and hypercholesterolemia are both terms used when discussing levels of fatty substances in the blood. Hypercholesterolaemia is another name for high cholesterol.  Hyperlipidaemia is a term used to describe high levels of fatty substances (cholesterol and triglycerides) in the blood.

* Please note results, timeframe and individual responses to treatments may vary from person to person. If you do need medical advice you should always speak to a doctor, pharmacist or appropriate medical professional.