The Link Between Stress and High Cholesterol

Quincy AdamHigh Cholesterol Lifestyle

Middle Age Couple Walking Dog
Stress can have a powerful impact on the quality of your life, contributing to a long list of health problems such as migraines and high blood pressure.

It can also cause some people to have higher levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and lower levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol).

Indirect effects

If you’re under high levels of stress, you’re more likely to make poor choices that can raise your cholesterol levels. For instance, you might pick up smoking, or, if you already have the habit, increase the amount you smoke if you’re under stress. Smoking has a negative effect on your HDL levels.

Stressful conditions may also make you more likely to overeat and to choose foods that are high in fat. You might reach for “comfort” foods like fried chicken or pastries. These can contain high levels of saturated fats or trans fats, which have been shown to raise your cholesterol levels. If you keep this eating pattern up over time, it can lead to weight gain, which may further increase your cholesterol levels.

Direct Effects

Stress and high cholesterol are not only linked indirectly. Research is showing they may also be directly connected.

In one study outlined by Ohio State University Research News, airplane pilots were given cholesterol tests shortly before and during a time of high levels of work-related stress. The pilots were in the process of having their licenses certified, and they also performed stressful tasks while their cholesterol levels were monitored.

During the study levels of bad cholesterol rose about five percent for men, but not for women. Researchers think hormonal differences may be the reason. These pilots were re-tested about a year later with similar results.

Another study involved middle-aged government workers in London1 who had no history of heart disease or high blood pressure. As part of the testing the workers were given stressful tasks to complete under a deadline. They rated their stress levels before and after the tasks, and also had their cholesterol levels tested before and after. Cholesterol levels rose for everyone, and the results were the same when they were retested three years later.

Researchers think that the study showed how people respond to stress, and how their cholesterol levels are related to their reaction. They believe stress and cholesterol are directly linked, and that subjects whose stress levels and cholesterol rose a larger amount may respond to real-life challenges in the same way.

How to Reduce Stress

Fortunately, one of the best ways to lower stress—regular exercise—can also independently help raise your levels of good cholesterol. Frequent aerobic exercise can increase your HDL by about five percent within just two months of starting to become more active.

If you tend to be under high levels of stress, it can also be helpful to participate in activities that help you better cope with stressors. Relaxing activities include:

  • Yoga or meditation
  • Quiet time reading book
  • A relaxing bubble bath
  • Listening to music
  • Working on creative projects
  • Walking the dog
  • Getting a massage
  • Spending time with your family doing something you all enjoy

Talk to your doctor about whether stress and high cholesterol may be linked for you. He or she may also have suggestions on ways to lessen the negative effects of stress.

1Steptoe A, Brydon L. Associations between acute lipid stress responses and fasting lipid levels 3 years later. Health Psychol. 2005;24(6):601-7. Accessed March 10, 2015.