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Causes of high cholesterol and how to lower it

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Wondering what cholesterol is and why too much can be harmful for your health? In this article, we will explain the reasons behind high cholesterol and give you some helpful tips on how to bring it down to a healthy level.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is produced in the liver and is found in every cell in the body. It is an essential component for optimal health. Your body naturally produces cholesterol in the body, but you can increase your cholesterol intake through nutrition. Too much cholesterol can affect how well your heart and circulation works. It can cause blood vessels to become blocked increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. This is why it’s so important to keep cholesterol levels under control.

Types of cholesterol

There are actually several different types of cholesterol that can be found in the body, but the two main types are LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)

Also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol. Too much can clog up your arteries, making them narrower - a major risk factor of heart disease.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL)

Also known as ‘good’ cholesterol. It’s a protective type of cholesterol which helps to keep your arteries clean by taking excess levels of cholesterol back to your liver where it’s re-processed and passed out of your body.


Triglycerides are fats carried in our blood which come from the food we eat. High levels are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and strokes.

Total cholesterol

An overall measure of both the LDL and HDL types of cholesterol found in your blood.


The ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein. A high value means there’s too much of the other types of cholesterol compared to the ‘good’ cholesterol.

Is cholesterol bad for you?

Not all cholesterol is bad for you, high-density lipoprotein or HDL is known as good cholesterol as it brings excess lipids from the blood and blood vessels to the liver so it can be processed and expelled from the body. This prevents blockages in the heart and the arteries which promotes good health.

What your cholesterol level reading means

 Total cholesterol Classification Advice/action
Less than 5mmol/L Desirable Re-test in 3 months
5 to 8 mmol/L Slightly raised Contact your local pharmacist for further advice, including whether you’d benefit from a cholesterol and heart check
More than 8mmol/L High Contact your doctor or healthcare professional


What causes high cholesterol?

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to high cholesterol, but the most common cause is a diet high in saturated fat. A family history of high cholesterol may also increase your risk, as well as a lack of exercise and having a body mass index (BMI) over 30.

What are the worst foods for high cholesterol?

Foods that are high in saturated fat are typically the worst foods for cholesterol. Saturated fat can be found in fatty meats and meat products such as sausages and pies, high fat dairy foods like cheese, cream, butter, cakes, biscuits and pastries. Trans fats can also negatively affect your cholesterol. These are usually found in biscuits, cakes, fast food and pastries.

Symptoms of high cholesterol

High cholesterol does not have symptoms per se, which is why it is a good idea to regularly check your levels. It is important to check cholesterol levels particularly if you have high blood pressure, you are overweight or you maintain a sedentary lifestyle. You may also want to consider checking your cholesterol levels if you have made any drastic dietary changes. Symptoms of high cholesterol may only present themselves during the onset of a more serious condition such as heart disease or stroke.

Cholesterol check up service

Our cholesterol check up service measures your blood pressure and cholesterol level, and estimates your risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the next ten years. It’s a great way to get peace of mind and know you’re doing the right thing, as well as getting all the advice you need on how to lower your risk.

How to lower your cholesterol

Want to lower your cholesterol? Here are some lifestyle changes you can make to help bring your cholesterol levels down.

  • Cut down on saturated fats

    Eating foods that are low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help lower cholesterol. Avoiding processed foods, sugary drinks, and fast food can also be beneficial in reducing cholesterol levels.

  • Increase fruit and veg portions

    At least five a day (400g) of a mixture of different coloured fruits and vegetables. A high intake of fruit and veg has been associated with a lower incidence of heart disease, elevated cholesterol levels, blood pressure and obesity. Fruits and vegetables are low in calories, rich in soluble fibre, antioxidants and potassium which actively lower blood pressure – another risk factor for heart disease.

  • Eat oily fish at least once a week

    Oil-rich fish, such as salmon, trout, fresh tuna, sardines, herring and mackerel, are the best dietary source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. They lower blood pressure, reduce clotting tendency and lower triglycerides. Aim for at least one 140g portion a week.

  • Add nuts to your diet

    Nuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, soluble fibre and plant sterols. They’re a good source of nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin E and potassium, which helps to blunt the effects of salt on blood pressure. Including just a small handful (around 30g) of nuts in your daily diet can help to reduce both total and LDL cholesterol.

  • Reduce your alcohol intake

    Alcohol may raise HDL ‘good cholesterol’ levels in those who drink moderately but remember that alcohol is full of empty calories. Alcohol is also a common contributor to weight gain, one of the biggest risk factors for high total and LDL cholesterol. It is best to stick within the Department of Health guidelines of no more than two to three units of alcohol a day for women and three to four for men with at least two alcohol-free days a week.

  • Stop smoking

    Smoking not only increases the stickiness of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which can clog artery walls, but it also decreases the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol that removes cholesterol from artery walls. To help you quit smoking, we offer an in-store service as well as a variety of stop-smoking products.


www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/high-cholesterol www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/blood-and-lymph/high-cholesterol