While high cholesterol levels don't necessarily mean you will get coronary artery disease, you should be aware that you are more likely to develop this as a result. The substance itself is a lipid, or fatty substance that is found in fat and animal tissue. Most is made by the liver and circulates through the blood. It is produced from saturated and dietary fats. If kept within certain limits, it is not harmful. In fact, it is used for many vital functions in the body including building and maintaining cell membranes, digesting fat, synthesizing hormones and manufacturing vitamin D.
The substance is needed in the body to support the immune system, protect the nerves and brain from heavy metals and fat-soluble toxins, to produce energy along with glucose, and to form sex hormones. Although a lot of the substance is made by the body, some also comes from our food. The only foods that contain it are animal-based foods like eggs, meat and dairy products. Unfortunately, the more cholesterol we eat, the more our liver makes.
Our bodies manufacture two types: LDL, also known as the "bad" type and HDL, the "good" type. Under optimal conditions, the body has a ready-made mechanism to regulate these types of cholesterol so they work in harmony.
So what is a high level? - Anything over 6.5 mmol/L puts you at a substantially higher risk of coronary heart disease than someone that has a level of 4.0 mmol/L. In fact, you are about 4 times more likely to get heart disease with this level of cholesterol in the bloodstream. (CSIRO).
Manifested symptoms are rare. Levels of high cholesterol are usually discovered through taking a blood test. The problem may be suspected when a person is diagnosed with other problems like coronary disease, stroke or peripheral vascular disease. If you have a known family history you should take regular cholesterol tests, just to be on the safe side.
High cholesterol may be caused by hereditary factors and by eating foods with high levels of saturated fat. Smoking can also contribute to high levels. The problem may also be associated with a previous heart attack, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
High levels can cause plaque build-up in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. If you experience sudden lapses in attention, paralysis, weakness or loss of consciousness, vision or the ability to speak, see a doctor immediately. If you experience chest pain or pressure, especially after emotional stress or exertion, see your doctor as soon as possible. If you have cramping, pain or discomfort in your legs when you walk that is even worse when you walk uphill or carry packages, see your physician.
What can I do about it?
Firstly, if a blood test shows that you have a high cholesterol level - don't panic! By making changes to your dietary intake you should be able to see quite fast changes in levels. If however, there is a known family history of heart related problems then you should make bigger changes immediately. If you don't see any changes in the level of cholesterol after a change in your diet then you may need to take medication as prescribed by your health professional.
By changes to your diet, what we mean is mainly reducing your intake of animal fats which includes dairy products like full-fat milk, eggs and cheese, pies and pastries, and other saturated fats. Try to buy products low in saturated fats. Just remember that foods made with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are good, while saturated fats are bad.