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Alcohol and Mental Health

How Does Stress Lead to High Cholesterol?

Published:
July 13, 2023
·
10 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 13, 2023
·
10 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 13, 2023
·
10 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 13, 2023
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10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 13, 2023
·
10 min read

When we think of high cholesterol, we probably tend to think of avoiding certain foods: fast food, fried foods, sugar, and processed meat are harmful for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they can significantly raise our cholesterol levels.

But, did you know that stress can actually lead to high cholesterol as well? In fact, recurrent or daily stress can not only affect cholesterol levels in the short term, but it can eventually lead to heart disease. Let’s take a closer look.

How Stress Affects Cholesterol Levels

When we experience stress, our body automatically starts preparing our muscles, heart, and other organs and functions for a fight-or-flight response. Our hypothalamus, a gland located near our brain stem, triggers the release of two hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — that speed up our heart, stimulate the release of energy, and increase blood flow to the brain.

From an evolutionary perspective, this was our body’s way of protecting itself against danger. For example, it’s what allowed us to escape the threat of wild animals. Today, however, this same chemical reaction occurs even if we’re not in immediate physical harm. For instance, our body might go into fight-or-flight mode if we’re facing the potential loss of income.

Both adrenaline and cortisol trigger the production of cholesterol, which is a waxy, fatty substance located in our body’s cells. Our body uses cholesterol to perform many bodily functions, such as making vitamin D and hormones. However, too much cholesterol can be dangerous because it can clog the arteries, eventually leading to a heart attack or stroke.

The amount of adrenaline and cortisol in our body usually remains high until we resolve the stress. Today, however, many of us are living in a constant state of stress. This can lead to high cholesterol levels both in the short-term and long-term, putting us at greater risk for health complications, especially heart disease.

Stress also triggers inflammation that lowers our high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. HDL is vital for helping clear out extra low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the artery-clogging “bad” cholesterol.

What the Research Says About Stress and Cholesterol

More and more research points to the detrimental effects of stress on cholesterol levels. A 2017 study found that psychological stress led to higher levels of triglycerides and LDL (which we want to be low). It also decreased levels of HDL (which we want to be high).

Similarly, another study found a positive correlation between those who experienced job stress and unhealthy cholesterol levels. People with high work stress were also more likely to take cholesterol medicine.

Part of the link between stress and cholesterol is in the way we handle our stress. For instance, many of us might cope with stress by eating unhealthy foods, or turning to sugary or high-carbohydrate “comfort” foods, which appear to reduce feelings of stress. But overconsumption of these foods can cause weight gain and obesity, which raise our risk of high cholesterol.

Similarly, some of us might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms — such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking — as a way of managing stress. These habits can also raise our cholesterol levels. Furthermore, if we’re not getting enough physical activity, our cholesterol levels will likely rise.

If we already have high cholesterol, stress can make it worse. One study found that people with higher levels of stress had elevated cholesterol compared with those who had lower stress over a three year period.

But even if we’re healthy, our cholesterol levels can rise during stressful times. A study of college students showed higher levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and cholesterol — including total and LDL cholesterol — around the time of their exams.

The Link Between Personality and Stress

Interestingly, researchers have found that some of our cardiovascular systems react more than others in response to stress. For example, some people’s blood pressure rises more than others at stressful times.

Our personality type (classified by the letters A, B, C, D, and E) can help predict our response to stress. For instance, research indicates types A and D tend to be high-stress personalities and are especially sensitive to stress hormones. Their heart rates increase, arteries restrict, and sugars are released into the bloodstream at higher rates than those with more relaxed personality types.

Accordingly, research suggests that those with “high stress” personality types can reduce their risk for high cholesterol by spending time engaged in frivolous thought, such as daydreaming. They can also reduce stress by limiting workplace conflicts, organizing their home and workspace, and realistically planning each day with enough time allocated for tasks.

Preventing Stress-Related High Cholesterol

Given the detrimental effects of stress on cholesterol levels in both the short- and long-term, it’s important to do everything we can to manage our stress levels. Here are some tips:

  • Exercise. One of the best things we can do for both stress and cholesterol is to get regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends walking for about 30 minutes a day, but we can even get a similar level of exercise just by cleaning our house. The goal is to just get moving!
  • Eat healthy. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole foods is good for our overall health. Try reducing the saturated and trans fats in our grocery cart. Instead of red meats and processed lunch meats, opt for leaning proteins like poultry and fish. Eat plenty of whole grains and fresh produce, and avoid simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour-based foods.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Try incorporating more relaxation techniques into your daily life. This can be as simple as deep breathing exercises, which we can do throughout the day. For instance, we might take 5 minutes at lunchtime to do some slow, deep breathing. This is highly effective for helping calm our mind and body. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are other good options for promoting relaxation.

Finally, if you find yourself turning to alcohol as a way to manage stress, consider joining Reframe. We can help you cut back on your drinking and develop healthier lifestyle habits that boost your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

When we think of high cholesterol, we probably tend to think of avoiding certain foods: fast food, fried foods, sugar, and processed meat are harmful for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they can significantly raise our cholesterol levels.

But, did you know that stress can actually lead to high cholesterol as well? In fact, recurrent or daily stress can not only affect cholesterol levels in the short term, but it can eventually lead to heart disease. Let’s take a closer look.

How Stress Affects Cholesterol Levels

When we experience stress, our body automatically starts preparing our muscles, heart, and other organs and functions for a fight-or-flight response. Our hypothalamus, a gland located near our brain stem, triggers the release of two hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — that speed up our heart, stimulate the release of energy, and increase blood flow to the brain.

From an evolutionary perspective, this was our body’s way of protecting itself against danger. For example, it’s what allowed us to escape the threat of wild animals. Today, however, this same chemical reaction occurs even if we’re not in immediate physical harm. For instance, our body might go into fight-or-flight mode if we’re facing the potential loss of income.

Both adrenaline and cortisol trigger the production of cholesterol, which is a waxy, fatty substance located in our body’s cells. Our body uses cholesterol to perform many bodily functions, such as making vitamin D and hormones. However, too much cholesterol can be dangerous because it can clog the arteries, eventually leading to a heart attack or stroke.

The amount of adrenaline and cortisol in our body usually remains high until we resolve the stress. Today, however, many of us are living in a constant state of stress. This can lead to high cholesterol levels both in the short-term and long-term, putting us at greater risk for health complications, especially heart disease.

Stress also triggers inflammation that lowers our high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. HDL is vital for helping clear out extra low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the artery-clogging “bad” cholesterol.

What the Research Says About Stress and Cholesterol

More and more research points to the detrimental effects of stress on cholesterol levels. A 2017 study found that psychological stress led to higher levels of triglycerides and LDL (which we want to be low). It also decreased levels of HDL (which we want to be high).

Similarly, another study found a positive correlation between those who experienced job stress and unhealthy cholesterol levels. People with high work stress were also more likely to take cholesterol medicine.

Part of the link between stress and cholesterol is in the way we handle our stress. For instance, many of us might cope with stress by eating unhealthy foods, or turning to sugary or high-carbohydrate “comfort” foods, which appear to reduce feelings of stress. But overconsumption of these foods can cause weight gain and obesity, which raise our risk of high cholesterol.

Similarly, some of us might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms — such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking — as a way of managing stress. These habits can also raise our cholesterol levels. Furthermore, if we’re not getting enough physical activity, our cholesterol levels will likely rise.

If we already have high cholesterol, stress can make it worse. One study found that people with higher levels of stress had elevated cholesterol compared with those who had lower stress over a three year period.

But even if we’re healthy, our cholesterol levels can rise during stressful times. A study of college students showed higher levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and cholesterol — including total and LDL cholesterol — around the time of their exams.

The Link Between Personality and Stress

Interestingly, researchers have found that some of our cardiovascular systems react more than others in response to stress. For example, some people’s blood pressure rises more than others at stressful times.

Our personality type (classified by the letters A, B, C, D, and E) can help predict our response to stress. For instance, research indicates types A and D tend to be high-stress personalities and are especially sensitive to stress hormones. Their heart rates increase, arteries restrict, and sugars are released into the bloodstream at higher rates than those with more relaxed personality types.

Accordingly, research suggests that those with “high stress” personality types can reduce their risk for high cholesterol by spending time engaged in frivolous thought, such as daydreaming. They can also reduce stress by limiting workplace conflicts, organizing their home and workspace, and realistically planning each day with enough time allocated for tasks.

Preventing Stress-Related High Cholesterol

Given the detrimental effects of stress on cholesterol levels in both the short- and long-term, it’s important to do everything we can to manage our stress levels. Here are some tips:

  • Exercise. One of the best things we can do for both stress and cholesterol is to get regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends walking for about 30 minutes a day, but we can even get a similar level of exercise just by cleaning our house. The goal is to just get moving!
  • Eat healthy. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole foods is good for our overall health. Try reducing the saturated and trans fats in our grocery cart. Instead of red meats and processed lunch meats, opt for leaning proteins like poultry and fish. Eat plenty of whole grains and fresh produce, and avoid simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour-based foods.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Try incorporating more relaxation techniques into your daily life. This can be as simple as deep breathing exercises, which we can do throughout the day. For instance, we might take 5 minutes at lunchtime to do some slow, deep breathing. This is highly effective for helping calm our mind and body. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are other good options for promoting relaxation.

Finally, if you find yourself turning to alcohol as a way to manage stress, consider joining Reframe. We can help you cut back on your drinking and develop healthier lifestyle habits that boost your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Develop a Healthy Lifestyle With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet hundreds of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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