You need a certain amount of cholesterol for all your body cells and to produce important hormones.
However, if there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it sticks to your artery walls to form atheroma or plaque. Having high cholesterol is one of the risk factors which increase your chances of getting heart disease and stroke.
As a result of this build-up on the artery walls, your arteries become narrowed. This process is called hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis.
The relationship between cholesterol and heart disease and stroke is complicated but it helps to look at how cholesterol is carried around in the bloodstream.
Know the types of cholesterol, good and bad.
There are two main types of cholesterol – HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) and LDL cholesterol (low density lipoprotein).
High levels of HDL cholesterol can protect you against having a heart attack or a stroke.
High levels of LDL cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Instead, it causes the build up of fatty material on the artery walls and symptoms (below) occur when the artery narrows or becomes blocked.
The type of symptoms depend on where the blockage occurs and include:
The body can produce all the cholesterol it needs and can usually maintain a healthy level of blood cholesterol.
However, sometimes the balance goes wrong and there is an increase in blood cholesterol. This may result from inherited problems or from eating too much saturated (animal) fat or too many foods from the top shelf of the Food Pyramid.
Some foods such as eggs, liver and shellfish contain cholesterol. However, the amount of cholesterol in these foods does not greatly affect the amount of cholesterol in your blood. You can eat foods that contain cholesterol in moderation as part of a healthy varied diet.
If you do not have a high blood cholesterol level, you can eat up to 7 eggs a week. However if you have been diagnosed with a high cholesterol level, you may be advised to eat less eggs, depending on your diet.
And for a healthy cholesterol and good heart health, it’s also important to:
If your results show a blood cholesterol level greater than 5 mmol/l (the measurement used for cholesterol levels), or your doctor is concerned about your HDL (good) or LDL (bad) cholesterol, he or she will arrange for another test. You will need to fast for 12 hours to get more information on your HDL and LDL cholesterol.
Have you already have had a heart attack, bypass surgery or angioplasty? If so, it is very important that you keep your LDL at or below 1.8 mmol/l. Your doctor will most likely suggest medication together with healthy eating and other lifestyle changes, as outlined in our booklets and in our Ways To Live Life Better articles.
Should you need to change any aspects of your cholesterol levels, your doctor will advise you on changes in lifestyle and may recommend medication. If you are prescribed medication, it is important that you follow the instructions carefully.
|Healthy levels mmol/l
|Less than 5
|Less than 3
|More than 1
|People with established heart disease/diabetes/other risk
|Less than 4.5
|Less than 1.8
Here’s a list of things you can do and see our articles Ways To Live Life Better for more practical tips and inspiration.
What if I have low HDL?
If your blood test showed that your HDL cholesterol is below the recommended levels, you will need to increase this level to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
You can increase the healthy HDL levels by:
Your doctor may also prescribe medication to raise your HDL levels.
The Irish Heart Foundation offers a range of free support services to those affected by heart disease or stroke that can greatly improve their quality of life. These include support groups, physical exercise classes, therapy sessions and more.
For more information on these supports, see our Patient Supports page.
If you have any questions about heart disease or stroke, you can also call the Irish Heart Foundation’s Nurse Support on (01) 668 5001 to speak to a nurse specialist who will answer your questions, and give you guidance and reassurance.