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Is cholesterol actually an enemy?

A high cholesterol count certainly increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke and it is estimated that two out of three people in the developed world have elevated cholesterol levels.

So let’s look first at what cholesterol actually is: a totally natural fatty substance, made mostly by the liver, which circulates in our blood – and our bodies need it to carry out various essential functions. For instance, it is a vital component of all our cells as well as of bile (which we need in order to digest fat), and it is involved in the manufacture of Vitamin D and other hormones. Furthermore, low cholesterol levels have been linked to depression, which can often occur on fat-free diets.

There are however two different kinds of cholesterol – a healthy one and an unhealthy one, both of them involving lipoproteins, which are basically packages made up of fats like cholesterol and proteins. High density lipoproteins or HDL are the goodies, while low density lipoproteins or LDL are the baddies, and it is the ratio between them which counts.

LDL plays an important role, which is to carry cholesterol from the liver to the cell but it can also damage our health. Why? Because if there is too much of it in the bloodstream, it can oxidise, rather like rust, in the blood vessels, wreaking havoc by building up fatty deposits and plaque on the artery walls and creating blockages.

HDL on the other hand carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver to be broken down, which is why it is a “good” type of cholesterol.

Where does cholesterol come from? The body manufactures much of its own cholesterol in the liver as mentioned above, and only about 20% is derived from what we eat – but needless to say, that 20% if very important. A diet packed with saturated animal fats, hydrogenated oils and trans-fats, full-fat dairy products, sugar, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and plenty of coffee will give your cholesterol levels a really good boost, while a high fibre intake and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses, whole grains and healthy fats, particularly essential fatty acids or Omega-3s, will keep everything well under control. And in case you are wondering, while eggs have a bad reputation when it comes to cholesterol, modern scientific research has not supported this.

Two vital lifestyle steps to manage cholesterol levels are aerobic exercise which raises HDL levels while lowering LDL; and giving up smoking as smoking works the other way around and increases the oxidation of fats.

When it comes to Dynamic Ageing, It is worth noting that our cholesterol levels tend to rise as we grow older due to decreasing liver function, and that cholesterol starts to oxidise at a faster rate; and also that levels rise post-menopause in women, so it is that much more important to eat a healthy, cholesterol-friendly diet packed with nutrients and antioxidants, and get plenty of movement in MidLife and beyond – even something as simple as eating a couple of raw organic apples or carrots can start to make a difference. And always remember to drink plenty of water, a minimum of eight glasses per day!

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