Anxiety is something most people will feel in their lives. It is your body’s natural reaction to stress. When you have anxiety, you may feel worried or nervous. For example, public speaking can be a source of anxiety for many people.
Although having some anxiety from time to time is normal, some people suffer from an anxiety disorder. This constant feeling of anxiety is difficult to control and out of proportion to the situation. Some examples of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias.
When you feel anxious, your body will naturally respond to that stress. A variety of changes occur in the body as part of this response. For example, your heart beats faster, your breathing speeds up, your muscles tense, and you may start sweating. This is known as the stress response or the “fight or flight” response.
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Cholesterol is a molecule that your body uses in a few different ways. It’s an essential component of the membranes of cells. It’s also used to make other vital substances, including vitamin D, bile (used to digest fats), and steroid hormones.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood on proteins known as lipoproteins. There are two kinds of lipoproteins.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as “good cholesterol,” decreases your risk of heart disease. HDL takes cholesterol toward your liver, where the body can flush it out.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as “bad cholesterol,” does the opposite and takes cholesterol into your bloodstream toward your organs. When LDL levels are too high, cholesterol can begin to stick to the walls of your arteries, forming plaques. When you have many plaques in your arteries, this is known as atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.
Plaques cause the arteries to become narrower and stiffer. This makes it harder for your organs to receive the nutrients they need. It can sometimes prevent the heart from receiving enough blood flow to function, leading to a heart attack. The risk of blood clots is also higher in people with atherosclerosis, which can cause issues like strokes.
There is an established link between high cholesterol and anxiety. Studies¹ have shown that high cholesterol levels are found more often in people who suffer from an anxiety disorder than those who suffer from other mental health conditions.
It is thought that this is due to increased levels of certain chemicals in your body that can cause more production of LDL in your body, thus raising your cholesterol levels.
There’s a link between stress and cholesterol levels. Studies² have shown that people with high-stress levels have higher LDL and lower HDL.
In addition, research has found that people with anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder (in which a person suffers frequent panic attacks), have higher cholesterol levels than others.
Studies have also shown that people with anxiety are more likely to have high cholesterol. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that high cholesterol causes anxiety. It could mean that anxiety causes high cholesterol or that some other factor causes both of these problems.
A study³ in rats showed that raising the animals’ cholesterol levels through diet caused them to develop anxiety-related behaviors. This means that high cholesterol seemed to cause anxiety in these animals.
This may happen in humans too. We certainly can’t rule it out.
However, most experts believe that what’s primarily happening is that anxiety leads to high cholesterol. There are a few ways this could occur.
One of the main ways that anxiety affects cholesterol levels is by changing your behavior. Stressed people may make certain choices to find comfort, and some of these choices can increase their cholesterol.
For example, a survey done by the American Psychological Association⁴ found that 1 in 4 Americans turn to food when stressed. These “comfort eaters” were found to have higher than average cholesterol levels and were more likely to be overweight.
They were also found to eat more fast food and unhealthy snacks, like potato chips. These food choices are high in saturated fats, which increase LDL levels.
Smoking is another habit that some people turn to when they’re stressed. In the same study, people who reported the highest stress levels were more likely to smoke, with 27% being smokers (compared to 19% in the group who reported the lowest stress levels).
In addition, those with high-stress levels also exercised less. It has been shown that exercise can decrease the total cholesterol levels in your body. If stress causes you to exercise less, then this could cause your cholesterol to rise.
Cortisol is a hormone released as part of the stress response. When there is an increase in cortisol, there’s an increase in total cholesterol levels, particularly LDL. Other stress hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline), are also associated with increases in cholesterol.
Stress hormones cause the body to make more cholesterol by affecting the activity of the enzymes that make this substance.
If the stress only lasts for a short period, then cholesterol quickly returns to normal afterward. However, if the stress lasts longer, then it becomes chronic. In this case, cholesterol stays high for a longer period. It may remain high even after the period of stress is over.
In addition, high cortisol levels are associated with weight gain, which can further increase your cholesterol.
Scientists are still researching the link between stress and high cholesterol. They may discover more ways that stress and anxiety can cause your cholesterol to rise.
High cholesterol can often be managed. A healthy diet and exercise are enough for some people, while others may need prescription medications. It is difficult to fully reverse the effects of high cholesterol, but it’s never too late for healthier choices to make a difference.
Everyone feels anxious sometimes, and it’s not easy to predict who will develop an anxiety disorder. Here are a few helpful ways to manage your anxiety.
When you start feeling anxious, spend some time doing things you enjoy. This can help shift you into a more positive state of mind so you don’t spiral into increased anxiety.
Although people sometimes reach for these substances when stressed, alcohol and drugs can worsen anxiety. Unfortunately, if you are already addicted, you may also experience anxiety when you quit.
Seek out the advice of a medical professional or find a support group near you that can help.
If you start experiencing frequent and/or severe episodes of anxiety, talk with a mental health professional. The longer you wait to treat anxiety, the worse it can get.
You may also start developing unhealthy habits for dealing with stress, which can be hard to break later. A mental health professional can help you learn to manage your stress in healthy ways.
You can manage your stress level in various ways to prevent it from negatively impacting your health. Here are some of them.
Regular exercise can help improve your mood and reduce symptoms of stress. It increases dopamine levels in your body, making you feel happier. It can also help improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by anxiety.
Spending time with people that you trust can help you reduce your stress levels. It is crucial for maintaining your mental and even physical health. Make it a priority to build and maintain strong relationships with others.
A healthy and balanced diet can help support your immune system and give your body the extra energy needed to deal with stressful situations.
Some research⁵ suggests that omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fish, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds, can help reduce anxiety.
If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms and the following apply, talk to your doctor.
Your stress, fear, and worry are concerning to you and are becoming difficult to control
You think that your anxiety could be linked to a physical issue
You feel like your anxiety is interfering with your life by impacting your work, relationships, or other parts of your life
You feel depressed or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
You are having trouble controlling your use of drugs or alcohol
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, seek help right away.
Stress and anxiety can impact your physical health in ways you may not know. If you are constantly stressed, this can increase your cholesterol levels, which can raise your risk of heart disease. We don’t yet know whether high cholesterol is also a cause of anxiety or only a result.
Making healthier choices, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, spending time with people you care about, and avoiding alcohol and drug use, may help keep your cholesterol levels from rising due to anxiety.
If you want to treat your anxiety or high cholesterol, seek the advice of a medical professional to help you decide on the best option.
Americans engage in unhealthy behaviors to manage stress | American Psychological Association
Anxiety disorders | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health
Stress effects on the body | American Psychological Association
LDL and HDL cholesterol: "Bad" and "Good" cholesterol | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention