When it comes to dealing with high cholesterol, many people think first about their diet and exercise habits. Researchers are now looking to the number of hours you sleep each night for answers. They may have found an important connection that could help you ward off heart disease.

What Is Cholesterol?

When you hear the word “cholesterol,” you probably think that it’s bad. However, cholesterol isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, cholesterol plays a vital role in helping the body produce vitamin D and certain hormones, and even form cell membranes.

There are different types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the type of cholesterol that is often associated with negative effects on health. It’s comprised of more fat than protein. Too much of it can accumulate and form lipid plaques in your arteries, leading to heart disease.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, on the other hand, has the power to suck up excess cholesterol. It delivers the essentials to your body first and then cleans up anything that would otherwise lead to buildup. Rather than totally avoid cholesterol, you need to know how to get the right type in your diet and how to regulate your numbers.

Who Is at Risk for High LDL Cholesterol?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that every adult over age 20 get screened regularly for high cholesterol. You can have this blood test done as part of your yearly physical. You may want to pay special attention to your levels if you have high blood pressure, are over 45 (men) or 50 (women), smoke, or have a family history of high cholesterol.

You may also be at risk if your diet is poor, you’re relatively sedentary (you don’t exercise), or you’re under a great deal of stress. Scientists are now also exploring the link between sleep and high cholesterol.

Cholesterol and Sleep

In a study published by Sleep, researchers discovered that both too much and too little sleep have a negative impact on lipid levels. They examined a group of 1,666 men and 2,329 women over age 20. Sleeping less than five hours at night raised the risk of high triglycerides and low HDL levels in women. Getting more than eight hours of sleep produced a similar result. Men were not as sensitive to oversleeping as women.

Too little sleep also leads to high levels of LDL cholesterol, according to a study published by the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. Individuals who slept less than six hours each night greatly increased their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In addition, the researchers uncovered that snoring is associated with lower levels of the good HDL cholesterol.

Young adults aren’t immune to the cholesterol and sleep connection. In another study published by Sleep, researchers determined that not getting enough sleep led to an increase in appetite for foods high in cholesterol, a decrease in physical activity, and elevated stress levels. Again, young women showed greater sensitivity to their sleep habits than young men. Interestingly, cholesterol levels in these groups improved with each additional hour of sleep.

In most of these studies, the researchers explain that other lifestyle choices contribute to high cholesterol levels. Some of the people with poor sleep habits also engaged in other activities that might have heightened their risk, like smoking, poor diet, or low levels of exercise.

Lifestyle Modifications

Beyond fostering healthy sleep habits, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from developing high cholesterol and heart disease. Diet is one of the biggest concerns. To help control your cholesterol, avoid foods high in saturated fat, like meat, butter, cheese, and other full-fat dairy products. You should also load up on foods that help to lower LDL cholesterol, like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and oats.

Exercise is another large part of the equation. The AHA suggests getting at least 40 minutes of moderate walking or other exercise into your day, three to four times a week. If walking isn’t your thing, try cycling, jogging, swimming, or another activity that gets your body moving and heart pumping.

When to See Your Doctor

Check in with your doctor whenever you have concerns about your general health. If you have any of the risk factors for high cholesterol, a quick blood test can reveal a lot and allow your doctor to take action. Sometimes lifestyles changes are enough to whip your numbers back into shape. Your doctor can also prescribe statin drugs to lower your cholesterol if necessary.

Trouble sleeping is another issue you may want to bring to your healthcare provider’s attention. Even an additional hour of sleep each night can shift your numbers, so try to head to bed a bit earlier tonight. Relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation are great for unwinding before bedtime. If these home methods don’t help, your doctor can point you in the right direction or possibly prescribe medication.

Think Holistic Wellness

The body is connected in more ways than we can fully grasp. Taking care of your heart is about taking care of the whole package, from head to toe. Eat well, exercise often, get good sleep, and you’ll feel great. 

Q:

It takes a really long time for me to fall asleep at night. I try to do everything right — I stay off of my phone before bedtime and I avoid caffeine in the afternoon. What else can I do?

A:

Your bedroom is your sanctuary. Avoid watching television in the bedroom since flickering lights can affect REM sleep. Read in a chair, not in the bed, since the images you read in the book may carry over in your sleep. Avoid all stimulants including caffeine and nicotine. Also keep a pen and pad on your nightstand so you can write down your thoughts or plans for the next day so you won't worry about forgetting.

Mark R. Laflamme, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.