Cholesterol is not intrinsically bad. In fact, the body needs it to function. However, consistently high cholesterol levels can cause grave complications, some of which present sinister symptoms. The most obvious signs of high cholesterol follow on from 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.
“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 Sami Firoozi, Consultant Cardiologist at the Harley Street Clinic, part of HCA Healthcare UK.
One telltale sign of this complication is “smelly pus” on your toes and lower limbs.
Doctor Firoozi explained: “The skin on your toes or lower limbs becomes cold and numb, turning red and then black, and/or beginning to swell and produce smelly pus, causing severe pain (gangrene).”
Other severe warning signs include:
- 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.
“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,” explained Doctor Firoozi.
A blood test will show the total cholesterol in your blood, including the levels of “good” and “bad” cholesterol.
HDL cholesterol is commonly branded the “good” cholesterol because it picks up LDL cholesterol – the “bad” type – and transports it to the liver where it is flushed out.
How to lower high cholesterol
The doc said: “High cholesterol can often be reduced by healthy eating and making lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise, cutting back on alcohol and stopping smoking.”
What counts as healthy eating?
There are several foods which are not just part of a healthy diet, they can actively help to lower your cholesterol too.
According to cholesterol charity Heart UK, cutting down on saturated fat and replacing some of it with unsaturated fat is a great way to lower your cholesterol.
Unsaturated fat is found in processed and fatty meats like sausages, ham, burgers and bacon.
Instead, you should opt for unsaturated fats, which are found in:
- Vegetable oils such as olive, sunflower, corn, rapeseed, nut and seed oils
- Avocado, nuts and seeds
- Fat spreads made from vegetable oils, such as sunflower and olive oil
- Oily fish.
According to cholesterol charity Heart UK, oily fish are a good source of healthy unsaturated fats, specifically a type called omega-3 fats.
“Aim to eat two portions of fish per week, at least one of which should be oily,” advises Heart UK.
The charity adds: “Avoid coconut and palm oil as, unlike other vegetable oils, they are high in saturated fat.”