Cholesterol, as we've all known for years, is bad for our health. But two thirds of Britons over 40 have raised cholesterol, greatly increasing their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke, so it's no surprise that some seven million of us rely on statins prescribed by our doctors to keep levels low. Opinion is divided on these, with some medics claiming that the side effects of statins may outweigh the benefits. Everyone agrees, however, that prevention is better than cure. So here are some all-natural ways to reduce your cholesterol — whether or not you're also taking medication at the same time.
A fat lot of good
For those with raised cholesterol levels, treatment may involve diet changes to cut down on "bad" saturated fats — but don't rule out the good stuff. Studies show that a diet featuring a moderate intake of healthier fats is better than a low-fat regime. That means making room for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Vegetable and olive oils, nuts and avocados are all good sources of these.
Get your oats
Oats can help to prevent cholesterol from being absorbed by the body, says Cheryl Wilson, head clinician at The Nutrition Coach (www.thenutritioncoach.co.uk). This is because they contain compounds called beta-glucans, which form a thick gel inside the digestive tract and bind to cholesterol in the gut. Start the day with a small bowl of porridge or stock up on oatcakes. Three of these daily will help keep you healthy.
De-stress your day
Stress may cause a long-term increase in cholesterol levels say researchers at university College London. They gave stressful tasks to a group of healthy middle-aged men and women and found that those who exhibited the strongest adverse reaction also had the highest "bad" cholesterol levels. The reason may be that stress causes the body to produce more fatty acids and glucose which require the liver to produce and secrete more LDL or "bad" cholesterol.
Look on the bright side
There's growing evidence to suggest that our psychological and physical health are intertwined. Studies indicate that an optimistic world view has tangible benefits — and that includes keeping cholesterol in check. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that middle-aged optimists had better levels of "good" cholesterol and lower levels of triglycerides, the fatty molecules involved in hardening of the arteries. It's thought that optimists are more likely to have a healthy body weight and a prudent diet.
Where's the catch?
Fish and fish oil are good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which some studies show help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. The British Heart Foundation recommends eating at least two portions of fish a week, with at least one being an oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines. This can also reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering another type of fat in the blood (triglycerides), helping to prevent blood from clotting and lowering blood pressure.
Studies show unsalted nuts, particularly walnuts and almonds, can reduce LDL cholesterol. Both contain monounsaturates but it is thought the effect comes from the rich antioxidant content found in nut skins. Aim for a small handful of these every day, says Cheryl.
Let the juice loose
You might think fresh is best but, when it comes to cholesterol, concentrated orange juice might have the edge. According to a recent study published in Nutrition Research, cheaper juices made from concentrate do a better job in reducing LDL cholesterol. This is because the manufacturing process for concentrated orange juice extracts more flavonoids — powerful antioxidants that can decrease cholesterol — from the fruit. Grapefruit, however, is a no-no in any form if you are taking statins (and some other drugs), as there can be an adverse reaction between the fruit and your medication.
An apple a day
..can improve the health of the heart in one month by reducing LDL cholesterol, research shows. In a study of healthy, middleaged adults, researchers from Ohio State University found that those who ate one apple a day for four weeks saw the levels of oxidised LDL in their blood — linked to the hardening of the arteries — fall by 40 per cent. Polyphenol, an antioxidant found in the fruit, may help to explain the drop.
Cholestrol - The facts
Everyone should know their cholesterol level but it's particularly important if you're over 40, overweight or have a family history of heart disease. Although many pharmacies offer on-the-spot, finger-prick tests, a test at your GP surgery is more accurate. This involves eating nothing for 12 hours beforehand so is usually done first thing in the morning.
Different types of cholesterol
LDL (low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol) can build up on the walls of your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein or "good" cholesterol) protects against heart disease by preventing the bad cholesterol from building up in your arteries.
What does my result mean?
Your test result will contain two numbers, one for each type of cholesterol. You want to see a low number for your bad cholesterol (LDL), ideally no more than 3. Your good cholesterol (HDL) number should be at least 1 - and preferably higher.