6 Key Nutrition and Lifestyle Habits for Healthy Cholesterol Levels
National Cholesterol Month in the UK is an annual campaign held in October to raise awareness about cholesterol and promote heart health. It is organised by Heart UK, a charity dedicated to preventing premature heart disease and other related conditions. The campaign aims to encourage people to get their cholesterol levels checked, make healthier lifestyle choices, and seek appropriate medical advice if needed.
In this blog, we will take a closer look at what cholesterol actually IS, the two main types, and some key nutrition and lifestyle choices that may promote healthy cholesterol levels.
What exactly IS cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a VITAL substance in our bodies, but having too much of the wrong kind can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular-related health complications. The good news is that many factors contributing to cholesterol levels are within our control. By making healthier lifestyle choices, you can maintain or achieve healthy cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart-related problems.
There are two main types of cholesterol in your blood; HDL-C (High-Density Lipoprotein cholesterol) and LDL-C (Low-Density Lipoprotein cholesterol), and they have different roles and effects on your health.
1) High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL-C):
HDL-C is often referred to as "good" cholesterol because its primary role is to remove excess cholesterol from your bloodstream and transport it to the liver for disposal. It acts as a scavenger, helping to prevent cholesterol from building up in your arteries. Therefore, higher levels of HDL-C are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and formation of plaque in the arteries.
Higher levels of HDL are generally better. As we are rooted in Functional Medicine, we are looking at optimal reference ranges versus conventional (standard) reference ranges and so we like to see HDL in the range of 1.4 - 1.8 millimoles per litre (mmol/L).
2) Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL-C):
LDL-C is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells throughout the body, and when there is too much LDL in the bloodstream, it can accumulate in the arteries, leading to the formation of plaques that narrow and clog the arteries. Raised levels of LDL are associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The smaller, and the more dense LDL particles are, the more “atherogenic” (artery-clogging) and plaque-forming they will be.
Lower levels of LDL are generally better and again, as we are rooted in Functional Medicine, we are looking at optimal reference ranges versus conventional (standard) reference ranges and so we like to see LDL in the range of 2 - 2.6 millimoles per litre (mmol/L).
Maintaining a healthy balance between these two types of cholesterol is essential for cardiovascular health.
6 Key nutrition and lifestyle habits for healthy cholesterol levels
1) Eat more “healthy” fats
Healthy plant-based fats such as avocados, olives, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, and omega 3 fats from fatty (oily) fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout, anchovies) are beneficial for heart health. They can lower LDL cholesterol and improve the arterial lining, as well as lower levels of inflammation.
The omega-3 fatty acids; EPA and DHA found in oily fish have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease in many research studies. You can also convert another omega 3 fat called ALA into EPA and DHA in your body and ALA can be found in walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.
Walnuts, almonds, cashews, brazil nuts and pistachios make great heart-healthy snack choices. A pistachio study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 found pistachios to be cholesterol-lowering foods.
2) Especially olive oil!
The predominant fat in olive oil is oleic acid and long term studies have found that it protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation, improves the lining of blood vessels, lowers inflammation, and may help prevent excessive blood clotting. Study findings suggest that half a tablespoon of olive oil per day was the ideal dose found to exert positive effects. We recommend drizzling a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over your salads and or other meals once or twice a day for optimal protection and benefits.
3) Get more fibre
Fibre specifically from whole oats, beans, and lentils can help to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Other forms of healthy fibre include root vegetables such as sweet potato, yam, beetroot and carrot, whole grain such as brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat, and of course, all vegetables and fruits (particularly berries).
4) Eat more colour!
Which brings us onto this next point. Colourful plants such as all vegetables, berries, herbs, and spices contain of a myriad of nutrients and ‘phyto’ (plant) chemicals, including a number of different polyphenols, antioxidants, flavonoids and other plant compounds which likely work synergistically in the body through several biological mechanisms to reduce risk of chronic diseases and reduce LDL cholesterol. Aim to ‘eat the rainbow’ each week by incorporating vegetables, berries, herbs, and spices from the purple, red, green, yellow, orange, and browns/whites colour categories.
5) Move regularly with “movement snacks”
Being physically active everyday is a major factor in healthy cholesterol levels. It’s one of the most effective ways to strengthen the heart muscle, manage your weight, reduce and optimise cholesterol levels and high blood pressure that can eventually lead to heart attack or stroke. Studies find that different types of exercise are needed to provide complete fitness, for example, a blend of aerobic/cardiovascular training and resistance (strength) training.
Sedentary lifestyles are shown to significantly increase risk of heart disease and high LDL cholesterol levels. Even people who frequent the gym can still lead sedentary lifestyles if they spend most of their days sitting at a desk or driving. We like to encourage regular “movement snacks” throughout your day to keep your body moving. How about setting a timer on your phone or using an app such as “Stand Up!” app to trigger you to move every hour on the hour. You could do 5-10 squats, press ups, jumping jacks, do a lap of the office/room/garden/block, march on the spot, walk up and down the stairs - and sit back down again!
6) Manage Stress (for a few reasons!)
Stress can have an impact on cholesterol levels through various mechanisms. When you experience stress, your brain activates your “fight or flight” stress response which releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol in particular, can lead to temporary spikes in blood sugar and triglyceride levels, a type of blood fat. High triglyceride levels are often associated with lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. If stress is persistent/chronic, which is very common in today’s modern world, these negative physiological effects also persist, leading to increased risk of raised LDL cholesterol levels.
Stress can also indirectly influence cholesterol levels by promoting unhealthy habits such as high sugar and junk food consumption, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and other poor dietary choices, all of which can lead to increased LDL cholesterol and decreased HDL cholesterol. Chronic stress often leads to sleep issues, including insomnia, and poor sleep can contribute to weight gain, insulin resistance, and other metabolic changes that negatively affect cholesterol levels.
One of our favourite habits to incorporate into your days to help your body to better manage stress and switch off your “fight or flight” response is to do 3-5 minutes of 4:6 ratio breathing technique each morning and night - this is a simple and effective method for reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and improving focus and concentration. Here's how to practise the 4:6 ratio breathing technique:
Find a Quiet Space: To get the most benefit from this technique, choose a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit or lie down.
Sit or Lie Comfortably: Sit up straight with your back supported or lie down on your back with your arms at your sides.
Close Your Eyes: Close your eyes to help you focus and minimise distractions.
Breathe In (Inhalation - 4 seconds): Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to four as you fill your lungs with air. Feel your abdomen rise as you breathe in.
Hold Your Breath (Pause - 4 seconds): Once you've completed your inhalation, hold your breath for a count of four. Keep your airways gently closed during this pause.
Exhale (Exhalation - 6 seconds): Slowly exhale through your mouth, counting to six as you release the air from your lungs. Focus on fully emptying your lungs.
Repeat: Continue this 4:6 ratio cycle for several minutes or as long as you like. You can gradually increase the duration of your practice as you become more comfortable with the technique.
Practising some simple, gentle yoga for 10 minutes each day has also been found to help manage/reduce the stress response. Other habits shown to help are journaling, which is simply to write down your troubles or issues, and to practise gratitude each day by simply saying out loud or writing down 3 things you are grateful for in your life.
Achieving and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a critical aspect of overall cardiovascular health. By adopting a heart-healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, and managing stress, you can make significant strides in maintaining or achieving healthy cholesterol levels. These lifestyle choices not only benefit your heart but also contribute to your overall well-being, helping you to lead a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.