Everything you need to know about living well with high cholesterol
You may be wondering, what is high cholesterol? Below, we explore what causes high cholesterol, what the symptoms of high cholesterol are, and what treatments for high cholesterol are available.
Any medical information provided here is for informational purposes and does not replace medical advice given to you by a medical professional. If you are concerned that you may have any of the high cholesterol symptoms discussed below, please see your GP.
Our bodies need a substance called cholesterol in order to function, and cholesterol has important roles within the body. Made in the liver, cholesterol forms the membrane of our cells. It is needed to produce vitamin D and hormones that keep us healthy and it also helps digest fats in food by making bile. Cholesterol is found in some of the foods we eat, as well as produced naturally by the body.
If we have too much cholesterol in our bodies, this can cause problems and may lead to the development of a number of serious health conditions such as stroke, coronary heart disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis or other cardiovascular conditions. Proteins carry cholesterol around the body in the bloodstream and there are two types:
It is the build-up of LDL within the arteries that leads to atherosclerosis and an increased risk of strokes, heart problems and other cardiovascular disease.
There are no high cholesterol symptoms that a person may be able to detect, and a high cholesterol diagnosis is only possible by having a test via a GP. It’s important to ensure you do not have high cholesterol, to avoid other health conditions that may occur as a result.
For more information on high cholesterol, visit the Heart website.
Found in processed foods, full fat dairy and meats. Read more information on saturated fats.
A genetic condition that means a person has high cholesterol even from birth, and by their 20s or 30s may be at risk of heart attack or stroke. Read more information about familial hypercholesterolaemia.
There are no symptoms of high cholesterol, which makes it impossible to know whether or not you have it. There are no high cholesterol signs to be aware of, and people of varied ages, shapes and sizes may have high cholesterol. It is a myth that only overweight people have high cholesterol, and high cholesterol levels do not relate to body fat.
Whilst there are no high cholesterol symptoms, it’s important to get your cholesterol levels checked, try to eat healthily and get regular exercise in order to keep cholesterol levels low. Some people with consistently high cholesterol may go on to have a heart attack or develop heart disease. This is because bad cholesterol clogs and damages the interior walls of the arteries and may cause atherosclerosis. This can lead to heart failure due to the heart being put under more pressure and becoming less functional over time. Heart attacks occur when the blood supply in an artery is blocked. For more information on how high cholesterol and atherosclerosis affect the heart, visit the British Heart Foundation website.
Since there are no high cholesterol symptoms, it is good to know your cholesterol levels by getting them checked. There are home testing kits available but these are not proven to be as effective as having a test at your GP surgery or pharmacy, so the latter is usually the best option. It’s important to have cholesterol checked at age 40 and then regularly onwards. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you should tell your GP and have regular checks, probably from an earlier age.
Cholesterol is tested via a blood test and this measures both low density lipoprotein and high density lipoprotein levels. Cholesterol is measured in millimoles per litre of blood, so your result will read in units mmol/L. You may also have levels of triglycerides tested at the same time as cholesterol – this is another fat used in the body. Read more information on how a diagnosis of high cholesterol is made.
If you are given a high cholesterol diagnosis from a healthcare professional, you may need to make lifestyle changes to reduce your cholesterol and will need to monitor your dietary cholesterol.
It is possible to lower cholesterol to acceptable levels by following a healthy diet for high cholesterol, increasing activity levels and possibly taking high cholesterol medications.
The high cholesterol treatment plan proposed to you by your GP, nurse or pharmacist may include tips on how to eat healthily and switch to a low cholesterol diet, as well as how much exercise you should try to get each day. This section of the guide focuses on medication treatments for high cholesterol.
This type of drug reduces cholesterol in the bloodstream by stopping the liver making so much cholesterol. They help people who are at risk of heart disease and often need to be taken for life. Examples include atorvastatin and simvastatin. People with familial hypercholesterolaemia often have to take statins. Learn more about statins.
This stops cholesterol being absorbed into the blood, and has fewer side effects than statins. Learn more about ezetimibe.
These are new drug treatments for high cholesterol and work by stopping the PCSK9 protein being made in the liver. Usually prescribed if you have very high levels of cholesterol, or have already had a heart attack or stroke, and traditional medications are not working well enough. Read more about PCSK9 inhibitors.
Similar to dialysis, this process filters blood through a machine to remove cholesterol and then puts it back in the body, and is usually used for people with familial hypercholesterolaemia, or who have very high cholesterol where other high cholesterol treatments are not working. Read more about LDL-apheresis.
Receiving a high cholesterol diagnosis may be a shock to you because there are no high cholesterol symptoms that you will have noticed, and you may feel fit and healthy. You may wish to look at this as an opportunity to make some lifestyle changes to help you live healthier.
Here, we explore what living with high cholesterol may be like and how it may impact your life. We also cover the lifestyle changes, such as diet for high cholesterol and exercise for high cholesterol, that you may need to make.
Having a high cholesterol diagnosis may affect your day-to-day life depending on the severity of your condition and how much it is impacting your health. If a person is considered to be at risk of heart attack or stroke, or has perhaps already experienced one of these conditions as a result of high cholesterol, they may have to make drastic lifestyle changes to ensure they lower their cholesterol. Even those with slightly raised cholesterol will be advised to try and lower it by changing their diet, increasing their activity levels and making other lifestyle changes.
You may be advised to:
Following a diet for high cholesterol is really important, because saturated fat in foods we eat raise the body’s cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is contained in foods we eat but generally people are advised that high cholesterol foods do not make a big difference to blood cholesterol levels. Eating a balanced, varied and healthy diet is more important. There are lots of foods that can actually help reduce cholesterol.
Cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and shisha all contain chemicals that harm the body, making bad LDL cholesterol stick to the artery walls, and lower good HDL cholesterol levels. There is lots of support and help for quitting smoking. Read more about why smoking affects cholesterol levels. For advice on quitting smoking, visit the Smoke Free website.
Alcohol turns into triglycerides and cholesterol in the liver, which raises levels of these and causes liver function to decrease, resulting in the liver being unable to remove cholesterol from the body. Read more about how to cut down your alcohol intake, or stop drinking altogether.
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
Reducing your consumption of saturated fats is important, which is likely to be found in these foods:
• Biscuits, baked goods, cakes
• Processed meats i.e. sausages and bacon
• Full fat dairy i.e. cheese, milk, cream, yoghurt
• Animal fats i.e. butter, ghee, lard, suet, dripping
• Meat i.e. fatty types such as lamb, beef, duck and pork
• Other oils i.e. coconut oil and palm oil
This is because saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol and make the liver less able to remove cholesterol from the body. Read about how to eat less saturated fat.
Some foods are naturally high in cholesterol, such as eggs, offal and certain types of seafood, but it’s unlikely you need to cut down on these as it will make little or no difference to your overall blood cholesterol.
Some foods actually help reduce the amount of blood cholesterol, including:
• Soya i.e. soya milk, edamame beans, soya sausages, Quorn, etc
• Sterol and stanol foods i.e. Benecol yoghurts and spreads
• Oily fish
• Vegetable oils i.e. olive oil, rapeseed oil
• Seeds i.e. sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc
• High fibre foods i.e. wholemeal bread and cereals, pulses, skin-on potatoes
There are lots of foods that are high in unsaturated fat, which is a better type of fat for the body, such as oily fish, nuts and avocados. Read more about fats in foods.
Some people take vitamins and minerals as supplements for high cholesterol, such as omega 3, plant sterols and garlic. You should always check with your GP or nurse before taking high cholesterol supplements.
It is possible to reduce your blood cholesterol levels through subtle dietary changes. Read this personal story about how lifestyle changes can lower cholesterol.
Regular physical activity is really important to a person’s overall health and wellbeing, especially if they have high cholesterol. Exercise increases the amount of good HDL cholesterol and decreases the amount of bad LDL cholesterol. Being physically active also helps lower blood pressure and helps reduce the risk of heart problems, stroke and diabetes.
There are lots of ways to get active – you don’t have to join a gym. Adults should try to achieve 150 minutes of exercise per week.
High cholesterol is rarely a barrier to employment but you may wish to explain your high cholesterol diagnosis to your employer. You may need to take time off occasionally for medical appointments to have your cholesterol checked or you may have side effects from medication that make your working day difficult. Many people with high cholesterol work as normal and make recommended lifestyle changes to help reduce cholesterol levels.
We hope the high cholesterol explanation provided here has been helpful. High cholesterol can usually be treated effectively so that you are able to live well and avoid future health risks.
There is a lot of high cholesterol help available to you. This section lists lots of sources for high cholesterol support and information. We also include links to other online resources with information and advice. If you are concerned about anything you have read in this guide, please discuss with your GP.
High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol Help – a Facebook group for people with high cholesterol to share tips, advice, information and personal experiences
British Heart Foundation – a charity supporting people with heart problems and related conditions such as high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, featuring online information, leaflets, and a heart helpline
Heart UK – a charity providing support, information and education to families with raised cholesterol, including a helpline, factsheets and real life stories
Kidney Patients UK – a charity supporting people with kidney conditions, which also features information and advice about high cholesterol, and its link to kidney health
NHS – source of official medical information about causes, symptoms and treatments for high cholesterol and related conditions
Stroke Association – information and advice about high cholesterol and how it may cause stroke
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of high cholesterol as straightforward as possible.
Tubes in the body that carry blood
A condition where plaque builds up in the arteries, causing them to narrow, which may lead to heart disease and other health conditions
Fluid found in the body which aids digestion and is released by the liver
A group of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels, such as heart disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis or angina
The building blocks of life, which give the body structure and carry out essential functions such as converting nutrients into energy within the body
Found in the body’s cells, this waxy substance can build up in the body, for instance in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease
Medical process of removing waste products or fluid from the blood
Block of blood supply to the heart
A protective coating that acts as a barrier; in the case of cells, it allows in some particles and denies access to others that could be harmful
Occurs naturally in foods such as fish, this is important for brain and heart health
In the blood, proteins transport hormones, vitamins, and other components around the body
A type of fat that causes high cholesterol
Drugs that can lower levels of bad cholesterol in the blood
Substances in plants that help block cholesterol from being absorbed in the body, which is added to some brands of foods such as spreads and yoghurts to help lower cholesterol levels
Fat which is stored in the body in fat cells, which is released later when energy is required in between meals
Essential vitamin used by the body that helps bone growth and maintenance