How to lower your cholesterol (without drugs)

Reduce your chance of cardiovascular disease with our top tips and advice

High cholesterol levels can have a dramatic effect on your risk of cardiovascular disease. But there’s plenty you can do to address the problem, discovers David Goding.

There’s a considerable amount of confusion surrounding cholesterol – what it is, where it comes from and why it’s so bad for us. The truth is, when the correct balance is maintained, cholesterol plays an important role and is even considered necessary for good health. It’s when there’s too much cholesterol in the blood that it becomes the cause of major concern, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.

“Of all the substances that our body produces, cholesterol seems to hold the record for bad press,” says dietician Catherine Collins, co-author of Healthy Eating for Lower Cholesterol.

“Yet, what people often tend to overlook is that cholesterol is essential for human life. Cholesterol forms the basis of steroid hormones such as testosterone and progesterone (sex hormones), cortisol (for stress adaptation) and vitamin D, for healthy bones.”

Cholesterol is also responsible for repairing protective walls of cells that are damaged during the course of daily life.

GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT

Sending cholesterol around the body effectively requires the assistance of couriers, of which low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the major force. Problems arise, however, when the blood carries too much LDL cholesterol – often referred to simply as ‘bad cholesterol’ – generally as a result of poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking or a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. Being overweight or having diabetes also puts you in the high-risk category.

“If there is too much LDL around, it functions abnormally, dumping too much cholesterol at each repair site and into the walls of arteries, which ultimately damages them,” says Dr Malcolm Clark, GP and author of Doctor in the House.

But while LDL offers a delivery service, HDL (high-density lipoprotein, also known as ‘good cholesterol’) is the collector, receiving surplus cholesterol to be taken to the liver for processing and removal.

“HDL also removes excess cholesterol from the arterial walls, helping undo the damage done by LDL,” says Dr Clark. Balancing these two lipoproteins is crucial for lasting good health.

CHANGING YOUR DIET

  • What to avoid:

We don’t need to consume foods that contain cholesterol to get enough of it. Our body is more than capable of producing an ample supply without any additional help. So it’s best to limit foods that are high in saturated fats – which also tend to be high in cholesterol.
This means cutting down on fatty meats, processed meats such as sausages and salami, processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, chips and pastries and deep-fried takeaway foods.

  • What to include:

Try to include more antioxidant rich fruit and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens. As LDL cholesterol is easily oxidised by free radicals, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis, you should include ample antioxidant-rich foods to reduce their impact. Several studies indicate that it is this oxidising effect that has the potential to cause the greatest harm.
When it comes to meat, go for lean cuts or, even better, fish. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease the rate at which the liver produces LDL cholesterol. The highest levels of omega-3s are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna.

Often going under the radar is the common tomato. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant carotenoid – and possibly the most powerful antioxidant of all – which has the ability to reduce cholesterol synthesis.

We’ve long known that garlic is good for heart health but the jury is still out as to how it works. It appears that garlic in the diet protects LDL cholesterol from the harmful effects of oxidation and may inhibit cholesterol manufacture in the liver, as well as stimulating the excretion of excess cholesterol from the body.
A bowl of oats a day may also be beneficial, according to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic, who found that the high soluble fibre content was effective in reducing LDL cholesterol levels in the body.

  • Taking supplements

Vitamin E is the anti-cholesterol vitamin and a powerful antioxidant nutrient, capable of protecting cholesterol from oxidation. Vitamin E is also thought to be capable of preventing heart disease through its ability to thin the blood.

A supplement called policosanol may also assist in lowering cholesterol, according to several studies. Derived from sugar cane wax and beeswax, policosanal appears to be capable of lowering total cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol and boosting levels of the helpful HDL cholesterol.

Omega-3 fats can be found in fish oil capsules as well as flaxseed oil, if you are vegetarian. Similar to the benefits of including more oily fish in your diet, omega-3 supplements reduce cholesterol by reducing the amount the body produces.

  • Going herbal

The most exciting development in herbal medicine for high cholesterol comes in the form of Chinese red yeast rice. Made by fermenting red yeast over rice, it is a substance used in Traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for indigestion and poor circulation and, as scientists have now discovered, for high cholesterol, lowering raised levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.

It is worthwhile making green tea rich in cardio-protective antioxidants called catechins and polyphenols – your hot drink of choice. Research shows that drinking green tea on a regular basis raises good HDL cholesterol and lowers total cholesterol by blocking intestinal absorption of cholesterol and stimulating its excretion from the body.
Common kitchen herbs, turmeric and rosemary, also appear to promote healthy cholesterol levels. Rosemary contains phytochemicals, which naturally reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood and turmeric has antioxidant properties which may prevent LDL oxidation.

LIFESTYLE SOLUTIONS

Lifestyle is a big factor in determining your cholesterol levels. Being overweight or carrying excess body fat, smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a lack of exercise can all contribute to high cholesterol. And if you already have a family history of the condition, these risk factors are even more important. Live a healthy, active life, without smoking, and you can make a big difference to your cholesterol balance.

Smoking has the unfortunate ability to make LDL cholesterol even more harmful than it already is by stimulating the process of cellular damage. The advantages of quitting smoking can’t be stressed enough.

Regular physical activity – defined as at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week – is also considered essential. Exercise actually helps to reduce LDL levels in the body while increasing levels of HDL. Exercise has the added benefit of helping you to shift excess weight, a significant contributor towards high LDL levels.

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The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis. Read our Medical Notice.