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Does Stress Affect Your Cholesterol?

Overview

Highlights

  1. Both high cholesterol and stress can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Research suggests a relationship between stress and cholesterol.
  2. One study found that those who reported more stress at work were more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol.
  3. Lifestyle changes such as exercise and eating healthy can positively affect both stress and high cholesterol.

High cholesterol can increase your chance of heart attack and stroke. Stress can do that as well. Some research shows a possible link between stress and cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in some foods and also produced by your body. The cholesterol content of food is not as noteworthy as the trans fats and saturated fats in our diets. These fats are what can cause the body to make more cholesterol.

There are so-called “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterols. Your ideal levels are:

  • LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
  • HDL cholesterol: more than 60 mg/dL
  • total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL

When bad cholesterol is too high, it can build up in your arteries. This affects how blood flows to your brain and your heart, which could cause stroke or heart attack.

Risk factors for high cholesterol

Risk factors for high cholesterol include:

  • family history of high cholesterol, heart problems, or strokes
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • smoking tobacco

You might be at risk for high cholesterol because you have a family history of it, or you might have a family history of heart problems or strokes. Lifestyle habits can also have a big impact on your cholesterol levels. Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, puts you at risk for high cholesterol. Diabetes can also damage the inside of your arteries and allow cholesterol to build up. Smoking tobacco can have the same effect.

If you’re 20 years old or older, and have not had a heart problem, the American Heart Association recommends that you have your cholesterol checked every four to six years. If you’ve already had a heart attack, have a family history of heart problems, or have high cholesterol, ask your doctor how often you should have a cholesterol test.

Stress and cholesterol link

There is compelling evidence that your level of stress can cause an increase in bad cholesterol indirectly. For example, one study found that stress is positively linked to having less healthy dietary habits, a higher body weight, and a less healthy diet, all of which are known risk factors for high cholesterol. This was found to be especially true in men.

Another study that focused on over 90,000 people found that those who self-reported being more stressed at work had a greater chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol. This may be because the body releases a hormone called cortisol in response to stress. High levels of cortisol from long-term stress may be the mechanism behind how stress can increase cholesterol. Adrenaline may also be released, and these hormones can trigger a “fight or flight” response to deal with the stress. This response will then trigger triglycerides, which can boost “bad” cholesterol.

Regardless of the physical reasons why stress can impact cholesterol, multiple studies show a positive correlation between high stress and high cholesterol. While there are other factors that can contribute to high cholesterol, it seems that stress can be one, too.

Treatment and prevention

Coping with stress

Since there is a correlation between stress and cholesterol, preventing stress may help to prevent high cholesterol caused by it.

Long-term chronic stress is more damaging to your health and cholesterol than brief, short-term periods of stress. Lowering stress over time can help to prevent cholesterol problems. Even if you can’t cut any stress from your life, there’s options available to help manage it.

Coping with stress, whether brief or ongoing, can be difficult for many people. Coping with stress can be as simple as cutting out a few responsibilities or exercising more. Therapy with a trained psychologist can also provide new techniques to help patients manage stress.

Exercise

One of the best things you can do for both stress and cholesterol is to get regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends walking for about 30 minutes a day, but they also point out that you can get a similar level of exercise just by cleaning your house!

Of course, going to the gym is also recommended, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get in Olympic shape overnight. Start with simple goals, even short workouts, and increase activity over time.

Know what kind of exercise routine suits your personality. If you’re more motivated to do the same exercise at a regular time, stick with a schedule. If you get bored easily, then challenge yourself with new activities.

Healthy eating

You can also significantly affect your cholesterol levels by eating more healthfully.

Start by reducing the saturated and trans fats in your grocery cart. Instead of red meats and processed lunch meats, choose leaner proteins like skinless poultry and fish. Replace full-fat dairy products with low- or nonfat versions. Eat plenty of whole grains and fresh produce, and avoid simple carbohydrates (sugar and white flour-based foods).

Avoid dieting and focus on simple, incremental changes. One study showed that diets and severely reduced calorie intake were actually associated with increased cortisol production, which raises your cholesterol.

Medications and alternative supplements

If reducing stress hasn’t sufficiently reduced high cholesterol, there are medications and alternative remedies that you can try.

These medications and remedies include:

  • statins
  • niacin
  • fibrates
  • omega-3 fatty acids

Whether using prescription medications or alternative supplements, always consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan. Even if they’re natural, small changes in a treatment plan can interfere with medications or supplements you’re already taking.

Takeaway

There’s a correlation between high stress and high cholesterol, so whether your cholesterol levels are great or need lowering, maintaining a low stress level can be helpful.

If stress is affecting your overall health, consult your doctor. They can advise you on an exercise program, a healthy diet, and medications if necessary. They may also refer you to a therapist to learn stress management techniques, which can be extremely beneficial. 

You asked, we answered

  • What is an example of a stress management technique?
  • There are several stress management techniques that can help when you are feeling stressed. My personal favorite is the ‘10 second vacation.’ This is accomplished in a very stressful situation when you feel like you are about to ‘lose it.’ Upon recognizing that you are getting upset, you simply close your eyes and imagine the calmest place in the world you have ever been. It could be a quiet dinner with a friend or partner, or a memory from a vacation — anywhere is fine as long as it is relaxing. With your eyes closed and your mind fixed on your calm place, slowly inhale for 5 seconds, hold your breath for a moment, and then exhale over the next 5 seconds. This simple act will help in the stressful moment.

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

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