Stress is an unavoidable fact of life that impacts your health in various ways. When stressed, you might crave sugary foods or have a hard time falling asleep at night. Unfortunately, the effects of stress aren’t always apparent, and you may not realize the toll it’s taken until many years down the road.
Aside from dampening your mood, stress can also lead to higher levels of cholesterol. High cholesterol comes with its own set of health risks, specifically in terms of heart health. Here’s how stress raises cholesterol and techniques to keep stress under control.
The different types of cholesterol
Not all cholesterol is bad. Cholesterol plays many vital roles in the body, including building new brain cells, digesting fat and regulating hormone production. The liver is constantly producing cholesterol to support these functions. Cholesterol itself isn’t the problem—health concerns arise when the liver produces too much “bad” cholesterol.
There are two main types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is considered the “bad” kind because it accumulates in the blood vessels. As the lipoproteins travel through the bloodstream, they leave behind cholesterol that hardens into plaque along the arterial walls. High levels of LDL cholesterol narrow the arteries, which can increase blood pressure and limit oxygen supply to the heart.
The other type of cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. These lipoproteins carry cholesterol back to the liver, where it’s safely removed from the body. Unlike LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol doesn’t accumulate inside the arteries. High levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart attacks, stroke and coronary heart disease.
How stress raises cholesterol levels
Stress can lead to high levels of LDL cholesterol by leading to an unhealthy diet. Stressful situations trigger your fight-or-flight response and make the body think it’s in danger. That fight-or-flight response increases cravings for sugary, fatty foods because they provide a temporary spike in energy needed to fend off threats.
While you can gain cholesterol from the foods you eat, the cholesterol found in these products isn’t actually what leads to high cholesterol overall. Processed meat and simple carbohydrates are high in saturated and trans fats, which increase LDL cholesterol production in the liver.
An unhealthy diet can also increase other risk factors for high cholesterol. People who regularly consume foods high in saturated and trans fats are more at risk for becoming overweight. Excess fat stores in the body coincide with high levels of triglyceride, a type of fat that contributes to plaque buildup.
Hormones associated with stress responses produce compounds that contribute to high cholesterol and plaque buildup. Stress causes the body to release cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. These hormones raise triglyceride levels, which encourages LDL cholesterol to accumulate along the arterial walls. Whether you’re experiencing short-term or chronic stress, both forms can release hormones that raise LDL cholesterol and increase your risk for heart problems.
Healthy ways to lower your stress
Stress is a natural part of life, but it shouldn’t take control of your health. Managing stress may help lower your cholesterol, ultimately reducing the risk of heart problems. Practice these simple daily habits to reduce your stress and improve your health.
- Get some fresh air: Spending time outside can help clear your mind of stressful thoughts. A change in scenery lets you step away from stressors, giving your mind a break from work, to-do lists and family obligations. Fresh air provides a mental reset that allows you to face challenges with focus, resiliency and a calm mind. Plus, walking or other exercise releases hormones that combat stress, too!
- Write down your thoughts: Some people may push negative feelings aside in an attempt to make them go away. However, bottling up these feelings causes even more stress. Take a few minutes each day to journal about what’s on your mind. There’s no right or wrong way to journal—simply let your thoughts flow onto the paper. Journaling removes the jumbled thoughts from your mind so you can tackle the day with a clear head.
- Seek professional help: Some people need more than journaling and a bit of fresh air to deal with their stress. If you’ve noticed signs of chronic stress, consider meeting with a trained psychologist. They can help you identify the source of your stress and provide coping tools that mitigate its effects on your health.
Stress is more than just an unpleasant feeling. Too much of it can have negative consequences for your physical health. Lowering your stress levels can decrease cholesterol and all the heart problems that come along with it. If you have high cholesterol, consult your physician for additional ways to bring your cholesterol levels back into balance.