What is low cholesterol? Symptoms, causes & prevention

Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is both produced by the liver and found in the foods we eat. Our bodies need cholesterol for many different functions, notably the maintenance of cell membranes and formation of vitamin D and hormones. There are two types of cholesterol including ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). Having low levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) can increase your risk of hypertension and heart disease. In this guide, we explore what cholesterol is, including the symptoms, causes and treatment for cholesterol levels that are too low.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a lipid – a substance made from fats – which is required by our bodies to keep cells healthy and assist in hormone and vitamin D production. It is carried in the bloodstream by proteins, and this combination of substances is called a lipoprotein.

Cholesterol is commonly categorised into two groups: ‘good’ cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol. This refers to the two types of lipoproteins present in the blood. These are:

  • High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) or ‘good’ cholesterol: This takes the ‘bad’ form of cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down and is therefore better to have a higher level of HDL.
  • Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad’ cholesterol: If too much of this type is present in the blood, a fatty material called atheroma can build up in the walls of arteries and blood vessels, causing them to narrow and increasing a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke.

What are the symptoms of low cholesterol?

Having low levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) can cause the following symptoms:

  • Steatorrhea (presence of excess fat in stools)
  • Diarrhoea
  • Pale/bulky stools
  • Distended abdomen

What are the causes of low cholesterol?

It is normal for cholesterol levels to drop if you exercise regularly and eat healthily, but this isn’t a cause for alarm. It’s only when cholesterol starts to drop for no particular reason that you should seek medical attention.

There usually aren’t any symptoms of low cholesterol, but some possible risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of low cholesterol
  • Taking statins or being on other blood pressure treatment programmes
  • Having untreated clinical depression

The only sure way to diagnose low cholesterol is by getting a test. If you have lowered cholesterol levels and are experiencing symptoms of a low mood or any other uncharacteristic behaviour, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider.

How to prevent and treat low cholesterol

There are several things you can do to keep your cholesterol levels at a healthy level. Most preventative and treatment measures take the form of small lifestyle changes which are excellent ways to not only balance your cholesterol levels but improve your health overall. These include:

  • Eating healthily: Consume plenty of cholesterol-friendly foods such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Incorporate a good amount of unsaturated fats into your diet, including oily fish (salmon and mackerel), olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. Reduce your consumption of foods high in salt, sugar, saturated and trans fats (processed foods, baked goods, fatty meat etc.)
  • Exercising regularly: Aim to do at least 150 minutes of exercise a week (2.5 hours). Go for brisk walks, try out cycling or swimming, but ideally do something you enjoy to make it easier to stick to a routine.
  • Cutting down on alcohol: Avoid consuming more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Set yourself several alcohol-free days throughout the week and avoid binge-drinking on the days you do have alcohol. If you’re finding it difficult to cut down, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider.
  • Giving up smoking: Although it’s not easy to quit, you can find some helpful tips on quitting smoking in our How to Quit Smoking guide.
  • Managing stress: There is some evidence to suggest that stress can also raise cholesterol, so managing your stress levels is also important. Exercise, meditation and a good night’s sleep are just a few of the ways to cope with stress, but if you are struggling, seek advice from a healthcare professional.

What is the normal cholesterol level?

The typical ‘normal’ level of cholesterol in men and women is around 5.0 mmol/L (millimoles per litre) or less: 3.0 mmol/L for LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol’). However, the results may vary depending on a number of factors including different individual circumstances and the type of test (fasting or non-fasting).

What causes low cholesterol?

It is normal for cholesterol levels to drop if you exercise regularly and eat healthily, but this isn’t a cause for alarm. It’s only when cholesterol starts to drop for no particular reason that you should seek medical attention.

There usually aren’t any symptoms of low cholesterol, but some possible risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of low cholesterol
  • Taking statins or being on other blood pressure treatment programmes
  • Having untreated clinical depression

The only sure way to diagnose low cholesterol is by getting a cholesterol test. If you have lowered cholesterol levels and are experiencing symptoms of a low mood or any other uncharacteristic behaviour, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider.

How often should cholesterol be checked?

Healthy adults should get a cholesterol test done every 5 years. However, it is recommended that those with cardiovascular issues, chronic health issues, and/or other health risks should get tested more frequently.

Whether they are done via a blood sample or rapid finger-prick, home cholesterol tests are a great way to measure cholesterol levels in between tests undertaken by a phlebotomist, nurse or GP. Bluecrest offers cholesterol tests both in the form of home test kits and clinics appointments with a health professional.

How can I get my cholesterol levels tested?

At a clinic

You can book a health check with one of our Certified Healthcare professionals at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics nationwide. All of our Health MOT Packages include a cholesterol test, in addition to a wide array of health markers for a detailed view of your health. You can choose between 3 levels of testing to suit your own personal needs.

At Home

Alternatively, you can get a liver function test from the comfort of your own home with one of our Home Test Kits, which all include a cholesterol test and also assess a variety of other key readings pertaining to your general health. All you need to do is order your kit, take your own sample, send it back in our pre-addressed return envelope, and wait to receive your results online within 8 days.