Women doing aerobic excersises

How to lower your cholesterol when diet alone isn’t working

Tips to lowering your cholesterol when diet changes aren't enough

While eating a healthy, varied diet packed with nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and fatty fish is important in the fight against high cholesterol, diet alone may not be enough to keep your cholesterol in check.

Considering high cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease and heart attack, reducing cholesterol is essential when it comes to maintaining good heart health.

So what else can you do to lower your cholesterol when diet alone isn’t working?

Get moving

Exercise helps to increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, which absorbs excess cholesterol in the blood and artery walls and transports it back to the liver where it can be flushed from the body.

Regular exercise can also help to reduce weight, which is another risk factor for high cholesterol.

Finding a type of activity that you enjoy doing and that works with your lifestyle is the key to keeping up this healthy habit.

Cut back on the alcohol

Excessive consumption of alcohol can raise LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. That’s why alcohol should be consumed in moderation.

The current guidelines advise no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.

While some studies have shown a correlation between drinking small amounts of alcohol (in particular red wine) and heart-related benefits, the overall picture with alcohol is more complex as it can have negative effects on other parts of our bodies (like the liver) even in low levels. So in general, the less alcohol you drink, the better.

Quit smoking and vaping

One of the best things you can do for your cholesterol and your overall health is to quit smoking and/or vaping.

Smoking raises LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides, and also lowers HDL ‘good’ cholesterol. This is due to the fact that compounds in cigarette smoke can impact HDL ‘good’ cholesterol’s ability to remove excess cholesterol from the blood.

The chemicals in cigarette smoke also cause damage to the artery walls. Cholesterol can then collect in these damaged areas, increasing the risk of developing blockages in the arteries.

Those who vape are also at risk, with a study showing that vaping leads to similar adverse effects on cholesterol as traditional smoking - including elevated triglycerides, total and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels.

Those who smoke both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes were also found to have lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol. 

To give you the best chance of success when attempting to quit smoking and/or vaping, ensure you have the support you need and remember the more times you try the more likely you are to quit for good.

Find ways to manage stress

Studies have shown a link between stress and increased cholesterol. Though the reason is not yet clear, one theory is that stress hormones trigger an increase in the production of cholesterol.

Stress may also be linked to coping strategies such as eating foods that are high in saturated fat, drinking alcohol and smoking.

Lose excess weight

Obesity can lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol and raise LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides - the most common type of fat in the body.

This is because obesity, along with associated conditions such as insulin-resistance, causes an increase in the amount of free fatty acids (fats) that are transported to the liver and turned into triglycerides. High triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease, but they can also lead to higher levels of lipoproteins, including cholesterol.

Obesity is also associated with chronic inflammation, which can lead to high cholesterol levels.

Being overweight or obese can also be linked to lifestyle behaviours such as poor diet and lack of exercise.

Making dietary changes, increasing exercise, and reducing alcohol intake can help to reduce weight and improve cholesterol.

Even a modest reduction of five percent of your body weight can have a positive impact on cholesterol levels.

Know your family history

Even those who are fit and healthy can still be at risk of high cholesterol due to an inherited condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia.

Familial hypercholesterolemia is caused by a mutated gene that impairs the liver’s ability to remove LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol from the blood.

This condition affects approximately one in 250 Australians and increases the risk of early onset coronary artery disease.

Therefore, it’s important to know your family history and get your cholesterol checked regularly.

Talk to your GP about medication

Even with all the lifestyle changes, cholesterol medication may still be required to ensure healthy cholesterol levels.

Discuss your options with your GP, and keep in mind that some medications (such as certain birth control pills, retinoids, corticosteroids, antivirals, anticonvulsants, diuretics, older forms of beta-blockers etc) can raise cholesterol levels, so if you have any concerns about your current medication this should also be raised with your doctor.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years