High cholesterol: Lifestyle interventions and medication

February 2, 2022
5 minute read

High cholesterol, also called hypercholesterolaemia, is characterised by increased levels of cholesterol in your blood exceeding a range which is considered to be normal and healthy. Long-term hypercholesterolaemia can increase your overall risks of developing cardiovascular disease. This includes conditions such as heart attacks, atherosclerosis, strokes, angina, coronary heart disease and more.

For this reason, it’s important that high cholesterol is well controlled and counteracted via lifestyle interventions, medication, or a combination of both. In this blog, we provide a comprehensive overview of high cholesterol and discuss treatments such as taking statins, nutrition, smoking cessation, exercise and more.

What causes high cholesterol?

There are two primary causes of high cholesterol: genetics and lifestyle. If you suffer from high cholesterol due to genetics this is called primary or familial hypercholesterolaemia. Most people, however, develop high cholesterol due to a combination of various lifestyle factors, such as an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. In such situations, this type of high cholesterol is known as acquired hypercholesterolaemia.

What is considered to be high cholesterol?

To understand what high cholesterol is, we must first look at the two different types of cholesterol and their effects on the heart. Total cholesterol is a term which describes the overall levels of cholesterol in your blood. This is comprised of HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol – “good” and respectively “bad cholesterol”. Normal to high levels of HDL cholesterol are thought to have a positive influence on the heart and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. By contrast, high levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with a higher risk of developing heart conditions.

Generally, cholesterol tests will measure a few things in your blood: your total cholesterol level, your HDL cholesterol, LDL and non-HDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.There is not a single healthy range of cholesterol that can apply to everyone – the desired levels to aim for are often unique to the individual. As such, it’s crucial to discuss your recommended levels with your GP.

As an overall guide, healthy levels of cholesterol might follow these values:

Lowering your cholesterol naturally

If your tests show that you have high cholesterol, as a first step, it’s usually recommended to address it by implementing a combination of healthy lifestyle habits including:

Improving your diet

To lower your cholesterol levels, processed foods and foods containing high levels of saturated fat need to be reduced as much as possible, while healthy unsaturated fats should be increased.

Aim to eat more:

  • Healthy sources of carbohydrates (brown rice, wholewheat grains)
  • Oily fish such as salmon
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Fruits and vegetables

Aim to eat less of:

  • Sausages, meat pies and other fatty meats
  • Butter and lard
  • Cream and hard cheeses
  • Sweets

Getting more exercise

Becoming more active is another important step you can take towards keeping your cholesterol levels in check. The NHS guidelines recommend getting a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.

Walking is an ideal form of exercise which is easy to do and accessible for all. To get started, read our blog on walking. Other forms of exercise include swimming, cycling and jogging that are manageable for most people and can help increase your exercise activity.

Quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol

If you’re a regular smoker and have high cholesterol levels, you should strongly consider quitting smoking. Additionally, cutting down on your alcohol consumption will also help you become healthier, so aim to have fewer than 14 units in a week, and avoid binge drinking if possible.

Statins for high cholesterol

In cases where lifestyle interventions aren’t enough to keep your cholesterol levels in check, you may be prescribed medication. One common group of medication prescribed for high cholesterol are statins.

These are drugs which work to reduce the level of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in your blood. They include drugs such atorvastatin, pravastatin, rosuvastatin and simvastatin.

Statins will be prescribed if there’s a worry that you might develop cardiovascular disease in the next decade, or if you’ve already been diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease.

How to take statins

If you’ve been prescribed statins, you should take them as instructed by your doctor. Generally, statins are taken once a day. Once prescribed, statins need to be taken long-term, as your cholesterol levels will increase again if you stop taking your medication.

Side effects and cautions

Most people that take statins will experience very mild symptoms (headache, feeling sick, diarrhoea) or no side effects at all.

If you do experience side effects and you find them to be intolerable, you should speak with your GP – they may decide to adjust your dosage or recommend a different type of medication.

Statins may interact with other medicines and should never be taken during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Please make sure you speak to your GP and inform them of any medications that you’re currently taking before starting statins.

To learn more about high cholesterol and statins, please read the following NHS articles: High Cholesterol, Statins.

If you would like to speak to one of our friendly pharmacists to answer more of your questions on this topic, click the button below to get in contact with them.

Content last reviewed on:
February 2, 2022
Next review date:
February 2, 2024
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