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Thursday, May 23, 2024

How does stress affect cholesterol levels?

When the body faces stress, certain physiological reactions take place, including changes in levels of hormones and components in the blood. Both of these events might lead to higher cholesterol.

Stress has various effects on the body. One of these is that it may increase cholesterol levels. This can happen indirectly by adopting unhealthful habits as a way of coping. However, there may also be a direct biological link.

When the body faces stress, certain physiological reactions take place, including changes in levels of hormones and components in the blood. Both of these events might lead to higher cholesterol.

Scientists do not know precisely what links stress and cholesterol, but there are several theories. This article looks at why this might happen and how to reduce the risk of stress-related cholesterol problems.

How the body reacts to stress

The hormones that the body releases at times of stress can raise cholesterol levels. When a person faces stress, their body automatically prepares their muscles, heart, and other organs and functions for a high-energy, fight-or-flight response.

Read more: Pills that lower blood pressure can prevent heart attacks in long-term, suggests research

Whether the person decides to run away or to stay and face the threat, their body will react in certain ways. The body will release the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol.

Epinephrine triggers the heart to work harder, leading to a rise in:

  • heart rate
  • breathing
  • blood pressure

Cortisol causes the body to releases glucose and fatty acids to the muscles and blood for use as energy. You can learn more about the link between stress and cortisol and how to reduce stress-related cortisol levels here.

These hormone levels will usually remain high until the person resolves the stressful situation. However, sometimes the stress levels do not drop or take time to return to their lower levels.

These factors may lead to higher cholesterol levels both in the long-term and the short-term.

Stress and cholesterol

A 2013 study that looked at data for 91,593 people found a positive correlation between those who experienced job stress and unhealthful cholesterol levels.

Another study, published in 2017, also found that psychological stress led to higher levels of triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol, and decreasing levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol.

People who experience long-term stress may have consistently high levels of cholesterol in their body. This could be due to the hormone cortisol

Scientists have suggested some ways in which stress reactions can lead to higher cholesterol.


When a person faces stress, they may experience hemoconcentration. This causes the blood to lose fluid. The components of the blood, including cholesterol, become more concentrated. This could be one way in which stress leads to higher cholesterol levels in the short term.

One possible reason for this may be that as blood pressure rises, fluid moves from the blood vessels to the interstitial spaces around them.


People who experience long-term stress may have consistently high levels of cholesterol in their body. This could be due to the hormone cortisol.

High cortisol levels can:

  • increase obesity around the stomach because of more fat deposits
  • affect fat in other parts of the body
  • increase appetite

At times of stress, people often eat less healthfully, turning to sugary “comfort” foods, as these appear to reduce the feelings of stress. Overconsumption of high-carbohydrate foods can cause weight gain and obesity. High cholesterol levels often occur with excess weight.

Read more: Does cholesterol cause Alzheimer’s disease?

Scientists have also suggested in one study that because stress adversely affects the immune system, it can lead to inflammation. This may affect cholesterol levels, for example, in people with some types of liver disease.

The authors of the study propose that a long-term inflammatory effect may increase lipid levels and obesity in people with severe anxiety disorders and depression. Smoking may also be a factor.

Fatty acids

If the body releases free fatty acids and glucose for energy during a stressful time and the person does not use these for energy, this could also cause cholesterol levels to rise.

Other effects of stress on the heart

Stress can also have other effects on the body, some of which can be dangerous. In a person with coronary heart disease (CHD), mental stress can lead to ischemic heart disease, a condition in which the heart does not receive enough blood.

According to a study published in 2013, when stress leads to a reduction in blood supply to the heart, this can increase the risk of a heart attack.

The researchers took measurements of heart ischemia from 310 people with stable CHD. When they faced mental stress, nearly 44 percent of the participants showed signs of heart ischemia.

Read more: How to keep the mind, body and soul healthy

The participants were more at risk of developing mental stress-related ischemia than exercise-related ischemia, the results showed.

The authors of the research also discussed how sex, marriage, and living arrangements could influence heart problems. They call for more research into these factors.

The cardiovascular reactivity theory

Researchers have found that some people’s cardiovascular system reacts more than others in response to stress. For example, some people’s blood pressure rises more than others at stressful times.

The cardiovascular reactivity hypothesis suggests that stress may increase the risk of heart disease in certain people. Often, a person with high cholesterol levels is already at a higher risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack. Stress could trigger such an event.

When people have high cholesterol, the walls of their arteries experience changes. Sometimes, these changes make the arteries less elastic, so the blood vessels are less able to open up in response to stress.

Indirect effects of stress on cholesterol

Stress is one factor that can contribute to high cholesterol levels.

Scientists have a reasonable understanding of the indirect effects of stress on cholesterol. For example, they know that when a person faces stress, they may be more likely to engage in certain behaviors that can increase or decrease cholesterol levels.

Factors that may indirectly cause cholesterol to rise include:

Dietary changes: In the short term, a person experiencing stress may not want to eat. In the long-term, however, the hormonal impact of stress can increase a person’s appetite.

Read more: Can very low levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol raise stroke risk?

Alcohol and tobacco: A person experiencing stress may increase their alcohol intake, and they may smoke more, or return to smoking after quitting.

Exercise: Physical activity directly affects cholesterol levels. If a person experiencing stress reduces the amount of physical activity they do, their cholesterol levels will likely rise.

Online Int’l News with additional input by GVS News Desk