High cholesterol occurs when you have too much of a fatty substance, known as cholesterol, in your bloodstream. Cholesterol performs many important roles in the body, such as helping your metabolism work efficiently. However, having high levels of low density lipid cholesterol (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol, increases the risk of heart problems or a stroke.
This harmful process does not typically give rise to symptoms, which makes it insidious.
However, consistently high levels can put you at risk of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), whereby a build-up of fatty deposits made from cholesterol and other waste substances block the arteries and restrict blood supply to leg muscles.
According to Doctor Sami Firoozi, Consultant Cardiologist at the Harley Street Clinic, part of HCA Healthcare UK, brittle or slow-growing toenails can be a telltale sign of the cholesterol complication.
Other signs include:
- Painful aches in the leg whilst walking – this will usually disappear after a few minutes’ rest
- Hair loss on your legs and feet
- Numbness or weakness in the legs
- Ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs, which do not heal
- Changing skin colour on your legs, such as turning pale or blue
- Shiny skin.
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“Although PAD is not immediately life-threatening, the process of atherosclerosis that causes it can sometimes lead to serious and fatal problems, such as critical limb ischaemia which occurs if the blood flow to the legs becomes severely restricted,” warned Doctor Firoozi.
- A severe burning pain in your legs and feet that continues even when you’re resting
- Your skin turning pale, shiny, smooth and dry
- Wounds and ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs that do not heal
- Loss of muscle mass in your legs
- The skin on your toes or lower limbs becoming cold and numb, turning red and then black, and/or beginning to swell and produce smelly pus, causing severe pain (gangrene).
Getting tested for high cholesterol
“Your GP might refer you to have a blood test to check your cholesterol levels if they feel you are at risk – this will be based on your age, weight, smoking status, if you have diabetes, or whether there is a family history of high cholesterol or heart problems,” explains Doctor Firoozi.
“You may also be tested for raised cholesterol if you have heart disease such as coronary artery disease or a history of stroke.”
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A blood test will show the total cholesterol in your blood, including the levels of “good” and “bad” cholesterol.
How to lower high cholesterol
To reduce your cholesterol, you should overhaul your diet and up the amount of exercise you do.
“Try to cut down on fatty food, especially food that contains a type of fat called saturated fat,” advises the NHS.
Saturated fat is found in:
- Meat pies, sausages and fatty meat
- Butter, lard and ghee
- Cream and hard cheese, like cheddar
- Cakes and biscuits
- Food that contains coconut oil or palm oil.
Being active is also a major part of looking after your cholesterol levels and keeping your heart healthy.
According to cholesterol charity Heart UK, it raises your HDL cholesterol levels – the good cholesterol which removes fat from your arteries.
What’s more, exercise also lowers your LDL cholesterol – the type of cholesterol that gets laid down in your arteries.
According to the UK public health guidelines, you should aim to do at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise a week.
One way of reaching 150 minutes a week is by being active for 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.
Moderate intensity activity means you get your heart rate up and you’re breathing harder, but you shouldn’t be out of breath.
Walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and dancing are all good choices.
“Remember to start slowly and build up,” advises Heart UK.