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Tips to help lower cholesterol levels

Tips to help lower cholesterol levels

Cholesterol is a vital substance in the body, however, having high levels can have negative effects on your health. The liver is the primary source of cholesterol production in the body, though it can also be obtained through certain foods, such as those derived from animals. Cholesterol serves important functions in the body, including the creation of hormones, cell walls, and bile acids.

However, when there is an excess of cholesterol in the body, particularly LDL (bad) cholesterol, it can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. This plaque can narrow or block the arteries, which can prevent the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart and brain.

When you have high cholesterol levels, your risk of cardiovascular health conditions increases. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of clogged arteries, heart attack, stroke and kidney failure.

On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as "good" cholesterol – actually helps clear that bad cholesterol from your bloodstream. That’s why a healthy cholesterol ratio, generally considered to be low LDL and high HDL, is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

What causes high cholesterol?

All individuals have some potential risk of developing small fatty deposits within the walls of the blood vessels, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases. However, certain factors can increase this risk, such as:

  • Genetics: Some people may be genetically predisposed to high cholesterol.
  • Diet: A diet high in saturated and trans fats and cholesterol can increase cholesterol levels.
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese can increase cholesterol levels.
  • Physical inactivity: A lack of physical activity can lead to higher cholesterol levels.
  • Age and gender: Men and women's cholesterol levels may change as they age.
  • Smoking: Smoking can lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and liver disease, can also contribute to high cholesterol levels.

How can I lower my cholesterol level?

Healthy lifestyle choices can improve cholesterol levels by raising beneficial HDL and reducing harmful LDL levels. Here are five simple lifestyle changes that I would recommend as a nutritionist.

Eat a heart-healthy diet: Consuming a diet low in saturated and trans fats, sufficient calories to maintain a healthy weight, and a variety of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats can lower cholesterol levels.

The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet and the DASH eating plan are examples that recommend healthier fats choices, by limiting both total and saturated fat intake. It suggests that less than 25-35% of daily calories should come from dietary fats, and saturated fat should be limited to less than 7% of daily calories.

It is also important to reduce the intake of foods that are high in cholesterol. These foods are mainly of animal origins, such as organ meats, egg yolks, shrimp, and whole milk dairy products.

Maintain a healthy weight: Even a slight increase in weight can result in high cholesterol levels. So if you are overweight, losing weight can help lower LDL cholesterol, particularly for those with metabolic syndrome. Fortunately, if you are overweight, significant weight loss is not necessary; losing as little as 5 to 10 per cent of your body weight can result in a drastic reduction of cholesterol levels.

Exercise: Experts suggest that carrying out regular exercise (30 minutes most days of the week) can help increase the beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, which protect the heart and decrease unhealthy triglyceride levels.

While exercise in any form can have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels and overall heart health, greater benefits are seen with longer and more intense forms of exercise.

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Eat plenty of soluble fibre: Increasing your intake of soluble fibre is a great way to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Fibre is thought to help by binding with cholesterol in the small intestine, preventing it from entering your bloodstream and travelling to other parts of the body. Instead, cholesterol is excreted from the body through faeces.

Psyllium husk, a type of dietary fibre, has been found to help reduce cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol and bile acids in the gut and eliminating them from the body. Several studies have shown that taking psyllium husk supplements can lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, while raising HDL cholesterol levels. Experts also believe that psyllium husk may reduce the absorption of cholesterol from the gut, but more research is needed to confirm this.

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Aim for a diet rich in omega-3’s: Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fatty fish, fish oil supplements, and some plant-based sources, have been found to help reduce cholesterol levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, while raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels. This effect is partly due to their anti-inflammatory properties, which help to reduce the risk of heart disease.

There are several food sources that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including:

  • Fatty fish: Fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, and herring are high in omega-3s.
  • Fish oil supplements: These supplements provide high amounts of EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3s.
  • Shellfish: Oysters, clams, and mussels are also rich in omega-3s.
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil: These are good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can convert to EPA and DHA.
  • Chia seeds: Chia seeds are a great source of both alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and fibre.
  • Walnuts: Walnuts are a good source of omega-3s and can be added to many recipes, including salads, smoothies, and baked goods.
  • Canola oil: Canola oil is another plant-based source of omega-3s.

It's worth noting that the beneficial effects of omega-3s have been observed with a minimum of 250mg of EPA and DHA per day, and this can be achieved by consuming fatty fish or omega-3 supplements.

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Are there any specific foods that you should be eating to help manage cholesterol levels better?

There are certain foods that not only fit into a healthy diet but also have been found to help lower cholesterol levels. Incorporating these foods into your daily diet can make a positive impact on cholesterol. The more of these foods you eat and the less saturated fat you consume, the greater the benefit to lower your cholesterol.

  1. Oats and oat bran: These are packed in soluble fibre, which can help lower LDL cholesterol.
  2. Barley and other whole grains: Like oats, these grains are also high in soluble fibre and have been shown to lower cholesterol.
  3. Nuts, especially almonds and walnuts: These are a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL cholesterol.
  4. Fruits and vegetables: Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help lower cholesterol levels due to their high fibre and antioxidant content.
  5. Legumes: Beans, lentils and chickpeas are good sources of protein, and are also high in fibre and phytosterols, which can help to lower cholesterol.
  6. Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids that can help lower cholesterol.
  7. Plant-based oils such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil and sesame oil are good sources of monounsaturated fats that can help lower LDL cholesterol.

Do eggs raise cholesterol?

Eggs have been the subject of much debate regarding their effect on cholesterol levels, particularly the cholesterol in yolks, which is a source of dietary cholesterol. Studies have shown that consuming dietary cholesterol can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, but the effect of egg consumption on cholesterol levels is complex and may depend on other factors, such as the overall diet and individual factors like genetics.

How long does it take to lower cholesterol?

The length of time it takes to lower cholesterol levels can vary depending on several factors, including the initial level of cholesterol, the methods used to lower cholesterol, and individual factors such as genetics, overall diet, and lifestyle.

If you're making dietary changes to lower your cholesterol, such as increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and decreasing your intake of saturated and trans fats, it may take several weeks to see a significant improvement in your cholesterol levels. However, some studies have shown that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, can result in a significant reduction of LDL cholesterol within 4 to 12 weeks.

The bottom line

A healthy diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, and high in fibre and plant-based foods, along with regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, is beneficial to improve the overall cholesterol profile and reduce heart disease risks. However, it's important to check with your doctor or a nutritionist to make sure that these dietary changes are well suited for your individual needs and health conditions.

Written by Riya Lakhani ANutr

Riya Lakhani ANutr is a registered nutritionist and health writer with a special interest in plant-based nutrition. She has completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Human Nutrition, and has developed a passion for writing about all things plant-based.

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