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Cholesterol is an important molecule in the body. It performs many functions, including hormone production and transport and maintaining healthy arteries.
But cholesterol is not all good.
Cholesterol comes in two main forms:
Low-density lipoprotein or LDL. This is thought of as “bad” cholesterol. It is caused by diet choices high in trans or saturated fats. In high amounts, LDL cholesterol can cause many health problems. These include high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, and migraines.
High-density lipoprotein or HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol, as it is made naturally by the liver.
LDL and HDL cholesterol are linked. High levels of LDL can dominate HDL levels. HDL is responsible for removing LDL from arteries and returning it to the liver.
The liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Extra cholesterol from your diet may lead to higher LDL cholesterol levels.
This can be harmful, as LDL cholesterol will put a plaque in blood vessels over time, which can build up and cause blockages. High LDL levels can impact cardiovascular health, cause high blood pressure and lead to strokes and heart attacks.
Usually, high cholesterol is not linked with headaches. Few studies are looking at links between the two health concerns.
This can make understanding why some people with high cholesterol get headaches difficult. It’s important to remember that health problems can cross over and overlap. While someone with high cholesterol may get headaches, this does not mean high cholesterol causes them. There may be other reasons.
For some, high cholesterol is caused by major stress and busy life. This can not only cause high cholesterol and high blood pressure, but it may also cause headaches. So while high cholesterol is not causing the headaches, it may result from the same root cause.
That said, new science is coming out to suggest a link between cholesterol and migraines. Studies¹ have found that high total and LDL cholesterol is associated with migraines.
However, more time and trials are needed to fully understand the relationship between high cholesterol and headaches.
When you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, the first step is to make some big lifestyle changes. Regular exercise, healthy eating, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption can all help reduce cholesterol.
Reducing cholesterol may not be the key to treating headaches. However, many of the treatments overlap. For example, people with headaches are told to manage stress, exercise, eat well, and drink plenty of water.
This means solving your headache problem and lowering cholesterol levels can be done at the same time.
Exercise can have many positive effects on the body.
Exercise is thought to modify enzymes involved in lipoproteins' production, transport, and breakdown. Studies² have found that exercise can reduce LDL and total cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol when combined with dietary changes.
The benefits can be experienced by getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as dancing, biking, playing golf, and house cleaning) most days of the week.
Diet also plays a role in cholesterol. Because your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs, any extra cholesterol comes from your diet.
However, most of the current research suggests that saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol, has the largest influence on cholesterol levels in the blood.
Keeping a healthy weight is key to staying on top of your cholesterol levels. A high BMI (body mass index) can affect the way your body uses lipoproteins (including cholesterol and triglycerides).
This means it can be more difficult to get rid of bad cholesterol (LDL) from blood arteries, making it harder for the liver to use or throw out LDL.
This, in turn, increases your cholesterol level. Plus, many of the strategies for weight management, like a healthy diet and exercise, can help lower cholesterol levels, and soothe headaches. Keeping a healthy weight is always a good idea for your health.
Smoking can have many negative health impacts, including problems linked with cholesterol. Smoking can make LDL molecules stickier. This can make them harder for HDL to remove and return to the liver.
Over time, LDL can build up in blood arteries and create blockages. Plus, smoking can lower your HDL levels, which also reduces how well the body can transport bad cholesterol back to the liver to be used or broken down and cleared from the body.
A build-up of LDL can cause a range of cardiovascular problems and maybe even lead to strokes.
Quitting smoking can help increase HDL cholesterol levels in less than three weeks! Thus, it can be a great first step toward long-term low cholesterol levels.
Excessive alcohol intake increases the risk of elevated triglyceride³ levels by 46%, which can raise cholesterol levels. Help lessen any increase in cholesterol by limiting your alcohol consumption.
Plus, alcohol may also play a role in triggering headaches and migraines. So, limiting alcohol may also help with these symptoms.
It is important to keep an eye on your cholesterol levels. Also, be aware of how your age and sex may impact your cholesterol. It is normal for your cholesterol levels to change throughout your life. However, any major increases should spark concern.
Adults are recommended to get regular cholesterol checks every four to six years. This can help your doctor notice unusual changes before they become bigger problems.
Here are two useful charts for working out if you have healthy, borderline, or problematic cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol levels naturally begin to increase in the body with age, because the liver becomes less efficient at removing LDL cholesterol. It is important to get checked for cholesterol regularly, so your doctor can find any problems early on.
High cholesterol is easiest to tackle when diagnosed early. This way, you can make small lifestyle changes to get on top of the issue.
Severe headaches and high cholesterol are two major health concerns. Whether or not they are connected, it is important to get medical advice if you experience either problem.
Because high cholesterol and headaches have similar causes and solutions, it is easy to think they are related. While new studies show a potential link between migraines and cholesterol, there is still insufficient evidence.
If you are experiencing persistent headaches, talk to your doctor. They will be able to help you understand why you are getting headaches and make a plan to help stop them.
Similarly, regular cholesterol tests can help your doctor find any unusually high cholesterol levels early on.
Doctors will likely suggest healthy lifestyle changes for both issues, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, and weight management. These solutions can help solve headaches and high cholesterol, even if unrelated.
Cholesterol | Harvard Health Publishing
Cholesterol levels (2022)
Physiology, cholesterol (2022)
Getting your cholesterol checked | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
High cholesterol: Overview (2006)
2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the management of blood cholesterol: A report of the American college of cardiology/American heart association task force on clinical practice guidelines (2019)
Blood cholesterol: Causes and risk factors | NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
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