Few women know that there is a direct link between cholesterol and menopause.
Most people with high cholesterol don’t have any symptoms which is why it is so important to have your cholesterol tested.
Some people inherit a predisposition for high cholesterol. Whether you inherit it or acquire it through your diet or other factors, it is a fact that high cholesterol increases the risk of Cardiovascular Disease. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart attack, talk to your doctor about cholesterol testing.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a, wax, fat-like material (lipid) found throughout your body which is produced by the liver. You also get cholesterol from the fats contained in your diet. We absorb cholesterol from red meat, high fat cheese, butter and eggs.
Triglycerides (lipid) are a type of fat found in your blood which you use for energy; these are a further indicator of you being at risk of heart disease.
Cholesterol plays a vital role in how every cell works and is also the material which the body uses to produce other vital chemicals, including hormones.
Whilst cholesterol plays a vital role, too much increases your risk of heart disease – it is essential, but only in small amounts.
LDL – Low Density Lipoprotein. This is the “bad” cholesterol as it causes plaque to build up in your arteries.
HDL – High Density Lipoprotein. This is the “good” cholesterol as it disposes of your LDL “bad” cholesterol.
Surplus LDL (bad) cholesterol builds up and hardens and narrows your arteries, blocking the blood flow to the heart and brain. This is known as Atherosclerosis, which is a life threatening condition if it leads to stroke or heart attack.
A cholesterol test is a fasting blood test called a Lipoprotein Profile which will check your HDL and LDL levels and measure your Triglycerides.
Cholesterol tests – know your number
According to Heart UK, cholesterol experts agree that the following are considered healthy for most people:
- a total cholesterol of 5mmol/L or less,
- a non HDL-cholesterol of 4mmol/L or less
- an LDL-cholesterol of 3mmol/L or less are
- a fasting triglyceride should be 2mmol/L or less
- a non fasting triglyceride should be less than 4mmol/L
* mmol/L stands for Millimoles per litre
* In the UK and Canada, cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/l). However, in Europe or the US, your result will be measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). You can convert your results here.
Understanding the Link Between Cholesterol and Menopause
Cholesterol levels increase as we age, in both men and women. For women, however, the change is striking at the time of menopause making the link between cholesterol and menopause an important factor. It is most important that you keep your eye on your cholesterol levels both during the perimenopausal, the phase leading up to menopause (actual menopause taking place when you have not had a period for 12 months) and even more so after menopause. Once your estrogen levels start to decrease your HDL (good) cholesterol lowers at this time, it is this alteration in the quality of HDL that increases the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Diabetes and smoking are two risk factors related to the onset of early heart disease in women. If either of these two risks apply to you, you need to apply extra caution.
The only time in a woman’s life when it is fine to have high cholesterol is either when she is pregnant or breastfeeding as the baby needs high cholesterol from the mother.
For some women, a change in lifestyle won’t be enough to improve their LDL levels. In such cases it may be that they are prescribed a LDL lowering medication, for example a statin drug. There are continually changing views on the use of statins but your GP will be able to advise you on this.
When you are in the transitional phase of perimenopause you may gain weight. Before your estrogen levels started to decrease, any weight gain would have been around your hips and thighs (pear shape). When your estrogen levels start to decrease leading up to and following menopause, you will tend to gain weight around your middle, abdomen area (apple shape). It is this shift of weight (body fat) distribution that activates increases in both your LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol – leaving you with an elevated risk of developing heart problems. This is why it is so important that we understand the relationship between cholesterol and menopause.
As life expectancy continues to increase, women will have a larger portion of their lives in the postmenopausal state/phase and therefore you need to be aware of the link between cholesterol and menopause.
What Can You Do To Keep Your Cholesterol Levels Healthy?
- Moderate your intake of saturated fat i.e. fatty meats, full dairy products and the concealed fat in pastries and cakes
- Include foods enriched with plant stanols and sterols, which have been clinically proven to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. For example replace butter with healthy heart margarines. Not all margarines are created equal so make sure you read the Nutrition Facts label. You need a spread that doesn’t have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat. Stanols and sterols are found in some vegetable oils, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. You will find that these types of food usually state their healthy heart benefits on their packaging
- Avoid crash diets
- Drink herbal tea. Studies show that certain organic herbal teas help to lower cholesterol levels.
- Check food labels for low fat options (3g or less per 100g is low in fat). However, watch out as some low fat options are often higher in sugar!
- 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day
- Eat at least two portions of oily fish per week (mackerel, salmon, sardines…)
- Include calcium rich foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese and green vegetables) to help maintain healthy bones and help to prevent Osteoporosis
- If you are overweight, cutting your weight by 10% can raise your HDL (good) by 8% and reduce LDL (bad) by 15%
- Reduce stress levels and try to get enough sleep
- Stop Smoking
- Find an activity you enjoy (walking, cycling, jogging, gardening, housework…). Aim to be active for 30 minutes 5 days a week. If you don’t currently exercise at all, aim for 15 mins, 3 times a week and progress from there
It is never too late to start taking care of your heart.
Lifestyle changes and maintaining a healthy diet can make a difference to your cholesterol levels aged 45 years and beyond.
If you are over 45, going through perimenopause or are postmenopause ask your doctor for a cholesterol test and have repeat tests on a regular basis.
Cholesterol tests – know your number. Retrieved on 4 November 2015. Retrieved from http://heartuk.org.uk/health-and-high-cholesterol/cholesterol-tests—know-your-number
Cholesterol and triglyceride levels conversion. Retrieved from http://heartuk.org.uk/files/uploads/documents/huk_fs_mfsP_cholestrigly_leverlsconversion.pdf
Boyles, S. (2011) Hot Flashes Linked to Higher Cholesterol. Study Shows that Hot in Menopause May Predict High Cholesterol. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/menopause/news/20110921/hot-flashes-may-be-linked-to-higher-cholesterol
Menopause and Heart Disease. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Menopause-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_448432_Article.jsp
Edelson, E. (2009) Menopause Often Means Worsening Cholesterol. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/heart/articles/2009/12/11/menopause-often-means-worsening-cholesterol