October is National Cholesterol Month, in which funds are raised for Heart UK and the dangers of high cholesterol are publicised.
Cholesterol is an important compound in the body, being a precursor of many hormones and vital for brain health. However, high blood cholesterol levels are associated with a high risk of coronary artery disease, but levels which are too low are associated with depression and personality disorders. To make matters more complicated and to dispel a diet myth, consumption of eggs (which contain dietary cholesterol) is not associated with high blood cholesterol.
Cholesterol is carried in the bloodstream by a lipoprotein (a carrier molecule). Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol to the arteries and is the more dangerous form of cholesterol. On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol out of the arteries; a high HDL level compared to LDL is thought to be better for cardiovascular health.
So what can we do to ensure a higher ratio of HDL to LDL?
Consuming omega 3 fatty acids are an evidence-based way to raise HDL. These compounds are found in highest amounts in oily fish. Vegan sources of omega 3 fatty acids are walnuts and flax seeds, but contain them in much lower quantities. Supplementation is recommended for vegans who are concerned about their cholesterol levels.
Like any other fat, cholesterol can be oxidised and become more damaging. Cigarette smoke increases the oxidation of fats, making it more difficult to clear from the arteries.
Antioxidants, on the other hand can decrease your exposure to damaging oxidation. A high level of antioxidants in the diet is associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C is an antioxidant found in many fruits and vegetables, and excellent sources of it include broccoli, kiwi, red pepper, citrus, berries, watercress, cabbage, melon and tomatoes. Vitamin C may be particularly beneficial for those trying to regulate cholesterol levels, as it is important for the health of blood vessels.
There is evidence to suggest that vitamin B3 (niacin) may be effective at increasing the ratio of HDL to LDL. Niacin can be obtained from dietary sources or supplemented, however this should be done under the guidance of a practitioner who can find the best type of niacin supplement for you. Food sources of niacin include eggs, fish, peanuts, legumes, whole grains, asparagus, courgette, mushrooms and tomatoes.
In summary, to support a healthy cholesterol profile:
· Eat oily fish
· Eat a variety of fruit and veg, particularly those containing vitamin C
· Aim to eat foods containing vitamin B3
· Don’t smoke