By learning to manage your cholesterol levels, you can dramatically reduce your risk of premature death and live a longer, healthier and altogether more productive life.
Elevated cholesterol levels have been likened to a "thief in the night". High cholesterol has also been termed a "silent killer" because of the key role it plays in the development of heart disease and stroke. The good news is that by proactively managing your cholesterol levels, you can dramatically reduce your risk of premature death and live a longer, healthier and altogether more productive life.
What is cholesterol and how does it affect your body?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance, naturally found in the bodies of all humans and animals. It has many important functions that are essential to the body and forms part of the basic structure of some hormones, all cell membranes and the insulation layer around nerves
While some cholesterol is absolutely essential to the body’s normal functioning, elevated levels can be a serious health hazard, leading to a build-up of fatty plaques on the walls of the blood vessels. Over time, these fatty build-ups cause the arteries to harden and become inflamed, which in turn can lead to overt disease. As cholesterol plaques build up in the blood vessels, they obstruct and can ultimately block the flow of blood.
Plaques may also become unstable, breaking away from the blood vessel walls and travelling to the heart or brain, with potentially devastating consequences ie. a heart attack or stroke.
What are acceptable levels?
The most widely accepted medical guideline is that, for good health, your total cholesterol reading should be less than 5. But as is the case with blood pressure - the other key risk factor for heart disease and strokes - recent findings suggest that lower levels are even better.
The total cholesterol reading comprises both high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. The former is often referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol and the latter as the ‘bad’. It’s therefore important to be sure that even if your total cholesterol reading is within normal range, your LDL cholesterol level is not unduly elevated relative to your HDL. Conversely, you want your HDL level to be high, as this helps to mitigate the detrimental effects of LDL.
Current guidelines suggest a target LDL of 2.5 (recently lowered from 3), although there are indications that even lower levels may be more optimal and that levels as low as 1.8 can actually reverse the build-up of plaques in the arteries.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
It is a grim truth that the first symptom of high cholesterol can be sudden death from a fatal heart attack or stroke. Because it is largely asymptomatic and individuals with high cholesterol don’t usually feel unwell, they can often go years without knowing they have the condition.
In addition to its more common associations with heart attack and stroke, advanced plaque build-up and hardening of the arteries can also lead to dementia, kidney disease and bad circulation in the limbs and extremities. In severe cases, poor circulation can even result in amputation.
It is very dangerous to ignore elevated cholesterol levels and turning a blind eye can result in tragic outcomes. It is absolutely critical that you have your cholesterol levels checked regularly, starting at a young age – ideally at least once a year as part of a routine examination.
Debunking the myths about cholesterol
Because heart disease and stroke often tend to present later in life, there is a dangerous perception that high cholesterol is a disease associated with advancing age. In fact, the process of plaque build-up begins as early as the childhood years.
A further myth is that heart disease, and therefore cholesterol, is primarily a health issue affecting mostly men. However, women are at risk too and far more women die from heart disease caused by elevated cholesterol than from breast cancer.
What causes high cholesterol?
Elevated cholesterol is the result of a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. People from all population groups are at risk of developing high cholesterol although certain individuals, including those of Afrikaner and Jewish descent, are more likely to be genetically predisposed to developing high cholesterol, but in the majority of cases, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are the main causes. Fat from animal sources is the main dietary culprit, although it is important to be aware that hydrogenated fats from plant sources, often found in processed foods, also play a role.
Who is at risk?
It has become increasingly apparent that high cholesterol is far more prevalent than was previously thought. This means that the majority of “Westernised” individuals who lead a sedentary life and eat a fat-rich diet are at risk. If this describes you, it’s critical that you empower yourself by knowing your cholesterol status and taking steps to address any problems. Those who, in addition, have a family history of high cholesterol need to be especially vigilant.
How is cholesterol diagnosed?
High cholesterol is diagnosed by means of a blood test. A finger prick test may be sufficient, but more in-depth laboratory tests are usually necessary for a definitive diagnosis, given frequent discrepancies between them and finger pricks.
So you’ve got high cholesterol, now what?
Diet and lifestyle
Diet and lifestyle modification remains the cornerstone of addressing elevated cholesterol. When it comes to diet, your intake of fat must be reduced to the absolute minimum. This means that in addition to making a conscious effort to cut down on items with known high-fat levels, you should also be cautious of processed foods as their fat content may not be immediately apparent.
When it comes to lifestyle, there are three main strategies to implement:
• If you’re a smoker, stop!
• If you’re overweight or obese, take steps to shed those extra kilograms.
• Exercise regularly. The benefits of exercise for reducing heart disease risk are well known. Until recently, it was believed that exercise did not impact directly on cholesterol levels but new findings have shown that physical activity does indeed help lower cholesterol levels.
In cases where diet and lifestyle changes do not bring about the desired reduction in cholesterol levels, medication should be considered as an adjunct. The main medical treatment currently available is a class of drugs known as ‘statins’. While statins are generally well tolerated, some people do experience unwelcome side effects.
Alternative treatment options
Those who wish to maintain a life-long healthy cholesterol level or who have an already elevated cholesterol level and want to avert a future health crisis should consider non-prescription medicines, but only those that are proven to be safe and effective. RyChol is a new generation non-prescription product that consists of a unique combination of natural compounds that display different but synergistic cholesterol lowering effects. This dual-action mechanism simultaneously targets two separate cholesterol producing pathways, thereby increasing RyChol’s efficacy whilst lowering the side effect profile. Trials have demonstrated that RyChol can achieve similar cholesterol lowering results as some of the earlier statins.
“Too little, too late” has been a common theme in the management of high cholesterol up until recently, with intervention often tragically only taking place after a major health event when the worst of the damage is already done. The focus is now shifting towards diagnosing and addressing cholesterol problems at a much younger age. In simple terms, it is everyone’s responsibility to know their risk and take proactive steps to manage it. Whilst there is little scientific evidence to prove that vitamin pills will make you live one day longer, overwhelming evidence proves that by lowering your cholesterol you can extend your life expectancy by as much as 30%. This simple concept is therefore, without doubt, the best anti-ageing strategy you could possibly invest in.
Visit www.mnilifestyle.co.za for more information.
(Advertorial of the Medical Nutritional Institute South Africa)