Blood cholesterol

Cholesterol is fatty substance that’s carried around your body with your blood. Your body produces some cholesterol naturally, and you can also get it from some foods. 

Having high levels of cholesterol in your blood is a risk factor for heart disease, so it’s important to manage your cholesterol.

Types of cholesterol

There are 2 different types of cholesterol:

  • High density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol) is called the ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps to keep cholesterol from building up in your arteries.
  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) is called the ‘bad cholesterol’ because it is the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in your arteries.

You may see them listed as HDL-C and LDL-C on your blood test results.

Total cholesterol is a reading of your good and bad cholesterol.

Triglycerides are another form of fat in your blood that can also raise the risk of heart disease.

When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries (plaque). 

Over time, this build up causes ‘hardening of the arteries’  – your arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or blocked. You may suffer chest pain and a heart attack.  

Causes 

A variety of lifestyle choices can affect blood cholesterol levels. These are things you can do something about:

  • Diet: Eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fat make your blood cholesterol level go up. Cholesterol in foods also has a small effect. Reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level. High triglycerides result from eating food high in fat and kilojoules. Read more about fats and cholesterol in food 
  • Weight: Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL and lower your triglycerides. Read more about healthy weight 
  • Physical activity: Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular exercise can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Read more about being active 
  • Smoking: High triglycerides result from tobacco smoking as well as diet. 

There are some lifestyle factors that can affect cholesterol levels that you can’t do anything about:

  • Age and gender: As you get older, your cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, women's LDL levels tend to rise.
  • Your family history: High cholesterol can run in families. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. For example, familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) is an inherited condition where your body doesn’t remove enough cholesterol from your blood. If you think you may be at risk of familial hypercholesterolaemia, talk to your doctor.

Symptoms

You can have high cholesterol and feel well. So it’s important to get your cholesterol checked regularly.

Diagnosis

The best way to find out your cholesterol levels is to have them checked by your doctor. This involves a blood test.

Generally we aim for lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, and higher HDL (good) cholesterol.

It’s best to talk to your doctor about what your blood cholesterol levels should be. They will tell you if your cholesterol levels are too high.

Reaching healthy cholesterol levels

Talk to your doctor about the best way to achieve a healthy total cholesterol combination of HDL, LDL and triglycerides. 

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor may tell you that the best way to manage your cholesterol is to make some changes like eating less saturated fats and more healthy food, or they may ask you to see a dietician.

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference. For many people, changing what they eat and drink is enough to lower their cholesterol. 

Find out more about what you can do to help your cholesterol. Keep your heart healthy 

Medicines

Lifestyle changes are not enough for some people. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines to help control your blood cholesterol. Make sure you take it as prescribed and get your cholesterol levels checked regularly. It’s also important to continue with healthy lifestyle choices

Read more about medicines 

Manage your heart disease risk factors

High blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. Know your risk factors and how to manage them 

Information sheets

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