A GP has explained how you can tell that your cholesterol is too high and how you can bring it down.

Cholesterol is one of those terms we've all seen in health adverts or on posters in GP practices but how much do you really know about it?

To help demystify the term, LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, Dr Bhavini Shah (GMC 7090158) has shared her expertise. 

Here's everything you need to know from what causes it to some top tips on how to reduce your cholesterol.

What is cholesterol and why is it a problem if it's high?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that our bodies need to function properly, the GP explained.

The LloydsPharamacy Online Doctor added: "High cholesterol is when there is too much of a fatty substance called cholesterol in our blood.

"Too much cholesterol can cause a build-up in our blood vessels. This can be risky because it makes it harder for blood to flow. 

“Over time, this can increase the risk of heart-related problems or strokes. So, managing cholesterol levels is essential for maintaining good health.”

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What causes high cholesterol?

Dr Shah has explained that high cholesterol is mainly caused by having an unhealthy lifestyle.

You might develop high cholesterol from eating too much fatty food or not getting enough exercise.

Smoking, drinking and being overweight are also considered a cause.

“You may also be more at risk if it runs in your family," the GP went on to say.

She added: "Other surprising factors that can contribute to high cholesterol are thyroid issues or some types of medication.”

How to get tested for high cholesterol

“High cholesterol does not typically cause symptoms, so you can only find out if you have it from a blood test," Dr Shah said.

“Your GP may recommend a blood test to see if your cholesterol is high, particularly if you are over 40, overweight or cholesterol and heart issues run in your family.

"You can also use a home blood test to check cholesterol levels. 

“A cholesterol test measures the levels of different types of cholesterol in your blood, including Non-HDL (often called ‘bad’ cholesterol), HDL (‘good’ cholesterol), and total cholesterol.”

What is a good cholesterol level?

In short, it depends.

Dr Shah explained: “A good target cholesterol level depends on factors such as your age, any health conditions you have and your risk of heart disease.

"However, if you have recently been ill, had a baby or taken medication then your levels may vary.”

However, Dr Shah shared that healthy adults should have:

  • Below 5mmol/L of total cholesterol in their blood
  • Above 1.0/mmol/L or above 1.2/mmol/L for women of HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Below 4mmol/L of non-HDL (bad cholesterol) 

How can I reduce my cholesterol?

Choose healthy fats

“To lower your cholesterol, you should try to cut down on fatty food, particularly food that contains saturated fat," according to Dr Shah.

The GP added: "Foods high in saturated fats include red meat, sausages and pies, full-fat dairy products, and fried foods.

"Instead opt for unsaturated fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil and oily fish like mackerel and salmon.” 

Eat more fish

The Doctor also recommends eating more fish like salmon and mackerel which contain omega-3 fatty acids.

This is a type of unsaturated fat that can help lower cholesterol levels. 

Dr Shah continued: “They do this by lowering triglycerides - a type of fat that enters your blood after eating.

"Some research has suggested that they can help by lowering blood pressure, preventing blood clots, improving circulation and keeping your heart rhythm steady.”

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Increase fibre intake

Another way you can bring down your cholesterol if it is high is to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Dr Shah also recommends beans, broccoli and sweet potatoes as well as whole grains.

She explained: "These foods are high in fibre, which can help reduce LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol).” 

Avoid processed foods

The GP has explained that ultra-processed foods can contain high amounts of sugar, salt and fat.

This means that eating too much processed food can potentially increase the risk of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“If you want to lower your cholesterol you should avoid ultra-processed foods such as microwave and ready meals, cakes and biscuits, cereal, cheese, and bread," the Doctor said.

Avoid cholesterol-rich foods

“Some foods, like red meats, egg yolks and whole milk are high in cholesterol. Limit your intake of these foods," Dr Shah noted.

She went on to say: “Instead opt for foods with low-cholesterol such as oats, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and even popcorn.

"Additionally, fruits and berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, apples, oranges and grapes are all low-cholesterol foods.” 

Watch portion sizes

Dr Shah has warned Brits to "be mindful" of their portion sizes to avoid overeating.

This can contribute to weight gain and higher cholesterol levels.

Exercise regularly

“You should aim to do at least three hours of exercise per week, especially if you are trying to lower cholesterol," the Doctor recommended.

She continued: "Try some fast-paced walking, swimming or cycling if you are looking for a place to start.”

Quit smoking

Dr Shah explained that smoking damages blood vessels and lowers HDL cholesterol so quitting is beneficial for your overall health, as well as for lowering cholesterol.

She added: "Smoking can increase your risk of serious problems like heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

Limit alcohol

The Doctor also suggested trying to avoid drinking more than fourteen units of alcohol per week and avoid binge drinking.

The GP explained that "drinking too much can contribute to higher cholesterol levels.”

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What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

“As high cholesterol typically shows no symptoms, many people are unaware that their levels are high," Dr Shah said.

She continued: "Therefore it is advisable to have regular check-ups and blood tests to monitor cholesterol levels and take steps to manage them if needed.

“If you have concerns about your cholesterol, it's best to discuss them with your GP who can arrange a blood test and suggest any lifestyle changes you can make or if treatment is necessary.”