Stress and Cholesterol: What’s the Connection?

Are stress and cholesterol related? Lifestyle stress is on the increase and it is common knowledge that stress affects health.

But does stress cause high cholesterol?

Stress is implicated in lowering the immune system and increased blood pressure and incidence of cancer.

Here we discuss the influence of stress and cholesterol.

Cholesterol is needed for normal body functions but too much cholesterol in the blood can block arteries and increase your chance of heart attack or stroke.

High cholesterol is a major predictor of disease, especially cardiovascular disease!

When stressed the body elicits the fight or flight response.

Adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream.

These stress hormones mobilize fats and cholesterol which increase in the bloodstream to be used by the muscles.

When these fats and cholesterol are used as an energy source to physically resolve that is causing stress then there is generally little threat to health.

The problem arises when fats and cholesterol are not used.

Why is this a problem?

Because high levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood present a health risk.

Excessive cholesterol in the blood promotes arterial blockage.

This may increase blood pressure and is one link between stress and high blood pressure.

As the arteries lose their elasticity and the atherosclerotic plaques narrow the diameter of the blood vessels your chance of heart attack or stroke increases.

These narrowing of the arterial walls also provide a connection for why stress and hypertension may be related.

It is important to take note that stress is not the only reason for high cholesterol levels in the blood.

Similarly the link between stress and heart disease is difficult to isolate as there may be other factors that influence hypertension and atherosclerosis. Some of these include:

  • a diet high in cholesterol and fatty acids
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking which mimics the sympathetic nervous system activation and thereby narrows blood vessels and increase heartbeat
  • obesity
  • sex, age, and heredity.

Stress also underlies many of these different factors that influence cholesterol and heart disease.

This makes taking control of stress and cholesterol important for your health.

Reducing stress and cholesterol

Exercise gives you a double benefit. Exercise reduces stress while reducing cholesterol.

People who exercise regularly have a higher HDL (high density lipoprotein) as opposed to low density lipoprotein (LDL) compared to non-exercisers.

HDL is often called ‘good cholesterol’ because it HDL carry’s cholesterol out of the bloodstream so that it is not likely to clog up the arteries which may lead to heart attack or stress (Wilmore & Costell, 1999).

Alter your diet. One of the best ways to lower cholesterol is to change your diet by reducing the animal fat you consume. Some suggestions include:

  • choose options for low fat cheese and milk or look to eliminate these from your diet
  • replace polyunsaturated margarine with butter
  • remove all visible signs of fat from your meat and choose lean cuts of meat
  • remove skin from chicken and fish before eating
  • reduce your consumption of hidden fat which typically is in most fast foods (pies, cakes, chips and so forth)
  • if you are overweight then look to reduce your weight.

Relaxation techniques. Stress and cholesterol are related and relaxation techniques can reduce both.

The higher the stress the more fats and cholesterol is released into your bloodstream.

Look for ways to reduce your chronic stress by either increasing your skills for coping with stress or practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises.

Relaxation techniques counter the effects of stress by activating the relaxation response.

This reduces blood pressure and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. At the same time stress and cholesterol are reduced by reducing the adrenal cortex activity.

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