Are raised cholesterol levels really a hazard to health?

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Very few of us have intimate knowledge of the biochemical workings of the body. Yet, one blood constituent practically all of us know something about is the waxy, fat-like substance known as cholesterol. Too much cholesterol whizzing around our blood streams, we are told, can clog our arteries and up our risk of falling prey to problems such as heart attack and stroke. The apparent spectre that is cholesterol seems to have captured the imagination of doctors and the general public alike: while twenty years ago virtually no-one had even heard of the stuff, many of us are now as familiar with our cholesterol score as our golfing handicap or bra size.

The rising popularity of cholesterol testing has lead to an inevitable burgeoning in the numbers of people concerned about keeping their cholesterol level in check. For anyone keen to do what they can to exert control in this area, the diet is an obvious place to look. Traditionally, individuals harbouring a higher-than-desirable cholesterol level are advised to eat less fat. While eschewing microwaveable lasagne and wodges of cheddar undoubtedly makes good sense, low fat diets tend to produce quite modest results in terms of cholesterol reduction. One reason for this may be that the majority of cholesterol floating around the bloodstream doesn’t come from fat in the diet; it’s made in the liver. One important stimulus for the production of cholesterol by the liver is the hormone insulin, which is secreted in response to carbohydrates such as sugars and starch. Counterintuitive though this may seem, I have seen many individuals get good control over cholesterol by going easy on their consumption of bread, potatoes, rice and pasta.

Getting on top of an elevated cholesterol level does not necessarily need to be solely about deprivation. Studies show that the addition of certain foods to the diet can bring cholesterol levels down through a variety of mechanisms. Oats, and particularly oat bran, have long been known to offer benefits here. Other foods that appear to have a natural cholesterol-quelling effects include soya milk and tofu, live yoghurt, nuts and olive oil.

While a raised cholesterol level can alert us to the need for a bit of dietary modification, it’s worth bearing in mind that not all cholesterol is bad for the body. Cholesterol comes in two main forms; low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL). While LDL appears to be responsible for cholesterol’s artery-furring effects, HDL cholesterol actually seems to protect against heart disease and stroke. So, while it might help us to reduce our overall level of cholesterol, another useful tack is to boost the amount of HDL in the blood. Eating plenty of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines seems to help raise HDL levels. Another lifestyle factor that can increase HDL levels is exercise. About half and hour of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging or cycling on most days is likely to reap dividends here.

Certain natural substances are known to have cholesterol-reducing effects. Niacin (a form of vitamin B3) and chromium seem to offer benefit here, and seem to work well in combination. One study reported that 100 mg of niacin along with 200 mcg of chromium per each may can be effective in reducing cholesterol levels in some people. Chromium has the added benefit of helping to raise HDL levels too. Another natural remedy for raised cholesterol is the Indian herb guggul (Commiphora mukul). Recent research suggests that compounds called guggulsterones in this herb appear to help the body rid itself of cholesterol. 25 mg of guggulsterones should be taken, three times a day.

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