Can Stress Cause High Cholesterol?

While it’s normal to feel a little stressed from time to time, long-term stress can increase your cholesterol levels. It can cause serious health problems. 

Stress isn’t always bad. Stress-related hormones like adrenaline and cortisol quicken the heart and even sharpen the brain. These effects can be useful in helping you problem-solve and deal with the minor stresses in your life. 

However, high levels of these hormones over time can trigger increases in blood cholesterol and even damage your blood arteries. This can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation. 

Food plays a significant role in cholesterol levels. Researchers¹ believe saturated fat has a larger impact on blood cholesterol than dietary cholesterol. 

Saturated fat can increase your LDL levels (bad cholesterol) and lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. 

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Stress hormones and cholesterol

Hemoconcentration

Hemoconcentration² happens when cells and solids in the bloodstream increase in concentration. Often this is due to stress responses causing a loss of fluid in the tissues. This blood viscosity (thickness) change can lead to several health issues, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in the body. This steroid kicks in fast to help the body deal with whatever threats it senses around you. 

Cortisol controls motivation, fear, and mood. Your adrenal glands on top of the kidneys produce cortisol. 

Part of cortisol’s role is to manage blood pressure and blood sugar. It also controls how your body uses fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Cortisol spikes your energy, leading to immediate stress response and a quickened heart and breathing rate. 

Cortisol controls many essential functions of your body. To respond to stress without other body functions getting in the way, cortisol can shut down your digestive, reproductive, and immune systems. This can cause long-term problems if your body is always making lots of cortisol. 

Fatty acids

Studies³ have shown that people under long-term physical and mental stress experience an increase in fatty acids. This can lead to several problems, including type 2 diabetes. 

On the other hand, adding in omega-3 may have positive effects on mood and daily stresses. This comes down to what fatty acids are good and bad for the body. 

Physiological effects of stress on your health

When your body goes into stress mode, you often start to breathe faster as the heart tries to move oxygenated blood quickly around the body. 

For people with chronic (ongoing, repeated) stress, the heart must work very hard for long periods. An overworked heart may cause high blood pressure, increasing the risk of a stroke or a heart attack.

The liver makes extra blood sugar (glucose) through gluconeogenesis when you’re stressed. This gives the body a small energy boost to get through stressful situations. 

Chronic stress may counteract the effects of insulin, leading to insulin resistance. Chronically stressed people are more likely to get type 2 diabetes, as the body cannot cope with the increased blood sugar levels. 

Also, if you’re overstressed, you may find your muscles tense up. This is the body's protective measure to prepare itself for fight-or-flight responses.

For most people, muscles relax again when stress lessens. For people with chronic stress, muscles may stay tense for long periods. This can cause various problems like stiffness, strain, and injury. 

Because long-term stress is mentally and physically tiring, many people find they lose sexual desire and drive.

Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system. It is common for people under long-term stress to get viral infections such as colds often.

Mental and behavioral effects of stress

Stress has more than just physiological effects. It can be challenging to live with and affect your mental health, potentially leading to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. 

Stress can impact your everyday enjoyment. It takes away the fun from family time and causes loved ones to worry. Stressed people may not feel like socializing or going out. It can lead to social withdrawal and anxiety.

Some health effects of stress include:

  • Anxiety⁴ disorders

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Insomnia

  • Social withdrawal

  • Hair loss

  • Mood changes

  • Poor memory

  • Drug, smoking, and alcohol abuse

Techniques for stress relief 

There are plenty of ways to bring stress relief into your daily life. Learning to recognize stress in all its different forms is important. The body treats any threat as a stressor. 

That may be an unpaid bill, an argument with a friend or loved one, or a neglected chore. Understanding what causes you stress may help you manage your stress levels.

For example, if your inbox builds up with emails and stresses you, try to take a moment to yourself for a short walk. 

Another idea is taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing to calm you and prepare for stressful tasks afterward. These techniques may prevent overwhelming stress and keep you grounded.

Tips for stress relief:

  • Exercise

  • Meditation

  • Talking about your stressors

  • Yoga

  • Bubble baths

  • Walking

  • Reading

  • Digital Detox

  • Socializing

  • Laughter

  • Journalling

When should you see a doctor?

Stress is normal for most people. It can help you work through stressful situations effectively. The body's stress response is not harmful in small amounts.

However, constant stress is not healthy. It can lead to many health complications like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, and high cholesterol.

See a doctor if you believe your stress is affecting your health and you notice new symptoms. They can help you create a stress management plan and check for other conditions.

The lowdown

Removing stress from your life is impossible, and small amounts can help you think and problem-solve. However, people in a constant state of stress may be at risk of health issues.

These issues include anxiety, depression, hair loss, and insomnia. Stress can also lead to high cholesterol, increasing blood pressure and damaging blood arteries. As a result, strokes and heart attacks are a danger.

It’s vital to try to manage the stresses in your life with things like exercise or talking. Get medical advice if you experience any symptoms of chronic stress or high cholesterol.

  1. Dietary cholesterol and the lack of evidence in cardiovascular disease (2018)

  2. Hemoconcentration and hemostasis during acute stress: Interacting and independent effects (2011)

  3. Acute physical and mental stress resulted in an increase in fatty acids, norepinephrine, and hemodynamic changes in normal individuals: A possible pathophysiological mechanism for hypertension-pilot study (2021)

  4. Life stress and health: A review of conceptual issues and recent findings (2016)

Other sources:

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