What Can Cause A Sudden Increase In Cholesterol?

You may have noticed a surprising cholesterol level rise in your latest blood test and be wondering what that means. This is sometimes called a cholesterol spike. Your blood cholesterol levels can be influenced by many things, some of which are described below. 

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What is a cholesterol spike?

A cholesterol spike is a sudden increase in the cholesterol levels in your blood. Your blood cholesterol is affected by many factors and medical conditions, and any number of them could be causing your cholesterol levels to change. 

You will need to monitor your cholesterol levels to know if this was just a temporary spike or the start of a pattern of increasing cholesterol levels. 

Causes of cholesterol spikes

Stress

In some cases,¹ experiencing high levels of psychological stress has been found to be related to higher blood cholesterol levels. The hormone cortisol is released during stress and can result in increased levels of glucose and fatty acids in the body, which in turn can lead to higher levels of the triglyceride and LDL (“bad cholesterol”) parts of your cholesterol reading. 

If you have been experiencing high-stress levels, especially during your blood test, it may have been a factor in the results. 

Coffee

Drinking coffee may potentially raise your blood cholesterol levels. Some research² suggests that drinking more than two to three cups of coffee each day may affect your cholesterol. Coffee contains an oil called cafestol that can interfere with lipid metabolism and raise cholesterol levels. 

A high-sugar diet

Some evidence³ suggests sugar can affect your blood cholesterol, specifically by raising the triglyceride portion of the cholesterol to abnormal levels. Refined sugars are often found in processed foods, baked goods, condiments, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

If your diet contains many of these foods, you should consider cutting down on them and instead eat complex carbohydrates like brown rice and whole wheat bread rather than white flour or white sugar food items. 

Medications

Some medications you may be prescribed for other health conditions can cause elevated cholesterol levels as a side effect. Some examples include:

  • Oral anabolic steroids

  • Antihypertensives

  • Thiazide, for short-term usage

  • Beta-blockers

  • Retinoids

  • Cyclosporine

If you are taking any of these medications and are concerned about how it affects your cholesterol levels, it's a good idea to talk with your doctor about it. 

Menopause

A significant jump in blood cholesterol levels has been observed in women at the same time as menopause. This jump has not been observed in men of the same age, suggesting that menopause and lower estrogen levels in postmenopausal women may contribute to an increase in blood cholesterol, specifically triglycerides, and LDL.

Physical inactivity

Living a sedentary lifestyle has been linked⁴ to higher blood cholesterol levels. Some research⁵ has shown that increased physical activity, including routine aerobic exercise, can help lower LDL or bad cholesterol levels and improve HDL cholesterol levels, the good cholesterol. Exercise also lowers the triglyceride level.

Too much alcohol

Drinking alcohol has a significant impact on how your body metabolizes fat. This impact could lead to elevated blood cholesterol levels, including triglycerides and LDL. Heavy alcohol use can also affect your liver function and add excess calories.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy causes your cholesterol levels to increase due to hormonal and metabolic processes that occur in the body. The mother’s body stores the extra fat to help nourish the fetus. So, if you have recently become pregnant, this could potentially contribute to your higher cholesterol level.

Treatment options for elevated cholesterol during pregnancy usually involve healthy lifestyle changes. Your physician can discuss other treatment options as well. You should not take any medications during pregnancy unless specifically advised to do so by your doctor.

Health problems that raise cholesterol levels

Thyroid issues

Hypothyroidism⁶ can cause high cholesterol levels. The thyroid is a gland at the base of your neck which releases hormones into your body. These hormones and many other functions play a role in cholesterol metabolism. In hypothyroidism, these hormones are disrupted, leading to high blood cholesterol levels. 

Type 2 diabetes

There is a strong link⁷ between type 2 diabetes and elevated cholesterol levels. Diabetes is a disease underpinned by dysregulated glucose metabolism, which means your body cannot process your blood sugar effectively due to a hormone called insulin⁸ not working properly.

Insulin is also involved in fat metabolism in your body, so your cholesterol levels may rise when it is not working correctly.

Liver problems

It is common to see high blood cholesterol levels in people with liver disease. The liver is an organ in your body that is responsible for making and breaking down cholesterol. With disease, the liver cannot function properly, leading to changes in your blood cholesterol levels.

Kidney problems

Kidney disease can result in elevated blood cholesterol levels. The kidney is an organ in your body involved in fat metabolism. When you have kidney disease, it cannot function normally and can lead to high levels of cholesterol in your blood. This places you at a higher risk of developing cardiac problems.

How to prevent high cholesterol

Exercise

Physical exercise can have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels. Regular exercise⁹ has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol within the body. Exercise also has more general health benefits; it positively affects your mental and emotional health and is protective against other metabolic diseases. 

Healthy eating

There is a strong link¹⁰ between the fat in your diet and its effects on your cholesterol levels. There are a few different types of fats in the foods you eat, and they each have a different effect on your body. 

There are saturated fats,¹¹ which are found in high amounts in animal products and processed foods. Saturated fat can increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in your body. Cholesterol, found in animal foods, also increases blood cholesterol levels. 

Unsaturated fats, including both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, are sometimes called “healthy” fats. Polyunsaturated fat can increase the amount of HDL cholesterol in your body. This type of cholesterol is good because it helps to stop cholesterol from building up in your body.

So trying to limit the amount of saturated fat to less than 10% of the total energy in your diet, as well as including some sources of healthy unsaturated fats, is a good way to potentially reduce your cholesterol levels or prevent them from increasing. 

Limiting the calorie content of your diet to within a range that meets your requirements and doesn’t involve overeating can positively affect the cholesterol levels of those who are overweight or obese.

Medications and alternative supplements

Some medications can help you control your cholesterol levels. These include: 

Statins

These are the most widely used and effective cholesterol-lowering drugs. Talk to your doctor to see if this is the right medication for you.

Ezetimibe

This blocks cholesterol from being absorbed from your food. This is sometimes prescribed in addition to a statin.

Bile acid sequestrants

These help your body to break down and get rid of more cholesterol. They include PCSK9 inhibitors, ACL inhibitors, fibrates, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acid ethyl esters.

Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is listed above as a bile acid sequestrant. It can be prescribed by your doctor. Niacin can also easily be found as a dietary supplement. Niacin products in the form of supplements are not the same as those prescribed by a medical professional and often cause more severe side effects. 

When to see a doctor

High cholesterol doesn’t have any symptoms, so you won’t be able to feel any changes in your blood cholesterol levels.

However, if you have had a blood test and noticed an increase in your cholesterol levels that is causing you concern, book an appointment with your doctor to discuss what it might mean. 

If you haven’t had a blood test in a few years and don’t know your cholesterol levels, ask your doctor to prescribe a fasting lipid profile. High cholesterol can be related to some serious health conditions, so it is always best to consult a medical professional if you have any worries.

The lowdown

There are many environmental factors and medical conditions which may be contributing to your elevated blood cholesterol levels. It could be one or a combination of multiple factors, including those listed above. 

Some factors, such as stress, caffeine, exercise, and alcohol, can be easily modified to help you control your cholesterol. For other conditions, lifestyle interventions and medical treatments can help manage your cholesterol.

  1. Relationship of mental and emotional stress to serum cholesterol levels. (1958)

  2. Coffee intake and elevated cholesterol and apolipoprotein B levels in men (1985)

  3. Effect of a moderate dose of fructose in solid foods on TAG, glucose and uric acid before and after a 1-month moderate sugar-feeding period (2020)

  4. [Sedentary lifestyle is associated with metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors independent of physical activity] (2017)

  5. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis (2015)

  6. Effects of thyroid dysfunction on lipid profile (2011)

  7. Prevalence and co-prevalence of comorbidities among patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (2016)

  8. Pathophysiology of diabetic dyslipidaemia: Where are we? (2015)

  9. Differential effects of aerobic exercise, resistance training and combined exercise modalities on cholesterol and the lipid profile: Review, synthesis and recommendations (2014)

  10. Effects of dietary cholesterol and fatty acids on plasma lipoproteins. (1982)

  11. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025

Other sources:

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