Medically Reviewed by Dr. Elisabeth Vincent Hamelin
What is that
Cholesterol is a particular type of fat essential to our body for numerous functions. A part of the necessary cholesterol is produced by the body itself (especially by the liver), while another part is introduced every day with the diet.
The amount of cholesterol present in the blood should not exceed, according to the most recent studies, 200 mg per 100 ml of blood, although there may be small differences for this value in relation to age, sex, race. It is admitted that there are two “types” of cholesterol: a “good” one called “HDL” which performs a protective function against atherosclerosis, removing “bad” cholesterol from the walls of the arteries, as if it were a sort of “scavenger”.
The ”bad” cholesterol, if present in excess, is deposited on the wall of the arteries, causing them to lose elasticity and forming a plaque that gradually gets bigger and prevents the passage of blood. This process is called atherosclerosis and ends up causing the suffering of vital organs such as the heart, kidneys, brain.
How it manifests itself
Atherosclerosis can begin to develop very early, even when you are young, but evident symptoms are almost always lacking: when the disease appears it is usually already in an advanced stage. With a blood test you can check the amount of cholesterol present. In particular, they must undergo a regular check:
- people whose parents have coronary heart disease and significant changes in blood fat content;
- patients with elevated blood pressure;
- those who are under 60 years old and who have small lumps of fat at the level of the eyelids.
What are the risks
More precisely, the risks for the heart are the appearance of angina (see related sheet) and heart attack. At the brain level, atherosclerosis can cause bleeding and thrombosis (events often indicated by the name of stroke); the kidney may lose its normal function.
What should be done
- Exercise: with regular physical activity the cholesterol present in the blood tends to decrease.
- Reduce or completely eliminate smoking.
- Keep blood pressure under control.
- Eliminate overweight: if in addition to cholesterol, the value of triglycerides (which represent another form with which fat is present in our body) is also high, we must first lose weight and reduce the amount of alcohol, animal fats and sugar.
- Follow a low cholesterol diet, reducing animal fats (butter, lard, cream, bacon) in favor of vegetable oils, eating more lean meats (veal, rabbit, chicken, turkey) and fish and less fatty meats (pork, duck, offal); eat more starchy foods (bread, pasta, etc.) and less fatty cheese; eat more legumes, fruits and vegetables and less sweets. For more information see the fact sheet on Low Cholesterol Diet).
- The cholesterol-lowering medications prescribed by the doctor should be taken regularly following the instructions received. Before starting to use it, it is good to try to reduce cholesterol with diet and exercise only for a period of 6 months. Even if you take cholesterol-lowering drugs, you shouldn’t lose control of your diet and stop exercising.
- Dietary products rich in fish oil can be used on the advice of the doctor in the presence of high triglyceride values and when the diet has not given a positive result. It is good practice to increase the salt fish content in your diet anyway.
- There are no reliable data on the usefulness of soy lecithin to reduce blood cholesterol and therefore its usefulness is uncertain.
When to seek medical attention
- Any cholesterol lowering therapy (dietetic or drug-based) should be periodically evaluated by your doctor.
- Some medications, such as birth control pills or certain medicines used to treat high blood pressure, can increase the value of cholesterol and triglycerides present in the blood. Therefore, you should inform your doctor of all the medications you are taking if a blood test indicates an increase in the value of cholesterol and triglycerides.