Chronic stress isn’t just a psychological problem; it’s also physical. Research suggests that long-term stress raises cholesterol levels, a significant risk factor for heart diseases like blocked arteries and heart attacks. Exactly how stress impacts cholesterol levels isn’t fully understood. However, ways to reduce stress are clear and may effectively lower heart disease risk.
How stress raises cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty and waxy molecule made in the liver and every cell of the body. As a complex chemical, it is essential for cell wall structure, digestion, and hormone production, among many other tasks.
Experts argue that chronic stress is a significant cause of excess low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, but biologists aren’t exactly sure why. Too much LDL cholesterol is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Current research shows that prolonged stress leads to high cortisol levels, which can increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides, obesity, and blood pressure.
Data suggest that chronic stress drives a chain reaction that ultimately leads to higher LDL cholesterol levels. A stressor starts the process by triggering the sympathetic nervous system to increase cortisol levels. This supplies the body with increased energy and raises blood glucose (sugar) levels. This is a normal and healthy stress response.
Over the long haul, however, chronic stress causes more glucose to circulate than is needed. Eventually, the body transforms excess blood sugar into triglycerides (unhealthy fat molecules at high levels). Excess triglycerides trigger increased LDL cholesterol levels, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease.
10 stress-relievers to lower cholesterol and heart disease risk
Stress itself isn’t the only culprit of increased LDL cholesterol levels. How we react to and manage stress has an equal impact on cholesterol levels and heart disease risk, according to experts. Here are a few stress-relieving recommendations backed by research.
1. Try a new relaxation technique
According to experts, relaxation techniques are powerful stress-busting tools since psychological stress is a strong risk factor for high LDL cholesterol levels. Breathing exercises, meditation, guided imagery, non-sleep deep rest, and yoga are examples of relaxing mind-body practices.
2. Boost your exercise plan
Studies show that exercise protects against both stress and high cholesterol levels. Consistent physical movement is also known to improve mental health conditions and sleep quality as well as reduce high blood sugar levels from chronic stress.
3. Reduce stress at work
Research shows that night shifts and demanding jobs are particular culprits of work stress, often leading to an increased risk of cardiac diseases and other chronic illnesses. An honest assessment of one’s job and work culture can help you make necessary changes and significantly reduce ongoing stress.
4. Seek help from a trusted advisor
When one can't immediately change stressful situations like work, getting help to cope and adjust is essential. According to experts, counsel from trained practitioners such as psychologists, therapists, and coaches helps improve skills like gratitude, positive self-talk, and optimism. In a 2019 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, boosting gratitude directly impacted perceived stress and quality of life.
5. Limit caffeine intake
Some studies have shown that coffee may increase cholesterol and anxiety levels for some people. General recommendations are to drink minimal caffeine. Understanding your body's response to caffeine is crucial in determining an appropriate and personalized consumption level.
6. Seek healthy physical touch
Healthy human touch increases oxytocin levels, a neurotransmitter essential to feeling connected and intimate with friends and loved ones. Oxytocin is associated with increased happiness and decreased stress. A 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association showed that oxytocin may also directly reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
7. Identify and eliminate personal stressors
Like caffeine, a particular stressor may affect some people more than others, so knowing your personal stress factors is essential to reducing them. According to studies, everyday stressors that increase cortisol production include clutter, procrastination, unreasonable work pressure, a busy schedule with too many obligations and activities, and a lack of goals and daily structure.
8. Use essential oil aromatherapy
Scientists have long known the physiological and psychological power of scents. When we breathe in tiny molecules from essential oils, they can directly impact brain activity and cognitive function through the olfactory system, as measured by electroencephalography (EEG).
The authors of one 2016 study published in the German journal Scientia Pharmaceutica wrote, "The studies have suggested a significant role for olfactory stimulation in the alteration of cognition, mood, and social behavior."
Studies show that for some people, the essential oils of bergamot, ylang-ylang, Roman chamomile, lavender, orange, and many others may help reduce stress and increase calm and relaxation.
9. Try mindfulness-based weight loss intervention
Studies suggest that obesity may blunt one’s normal physiological response to stress or cause an exaggerated stress response. In some people with obesity, this could hinder a normal stress response, negatively affect one's coping mechanisms, and trigger further overeating. Mindfulness-based weight loss training may help restore a healthy stress response and increase motivation and a positive outlook, allowing for better overall stress management.
10. Spend ample time in nature
Robust research shows that nature helps reduce stress and cortisol levels. Studies reveal that green spaces, walking, and activities like gardening may reduce burnout, stress symptoms, and sick leave from work. Time outdoors seems to improve one's coping and stress management skills, especially when coupled with other stress-reducing activities, like exercise or meditation.
Each person faces unique stress triggers. Research shows that different stressors increase cholesterol levels differently in various individuals. Still, in general, people with chronic stress face a higher risk for heart disease. Personalizing stress management to each person’s needs, personality, and lifestyle is a powerful way to combat heart disease.
Research suggests that long-term stress raises cholesterol levels in many people. High cholesterol levels are a significant risk factor for heart diseases like blocked arteries and heart attacks.
Cholesterol is a complex molecule made naturally in every cell of the body and in the liver. It’s essential for cell wall structure, digestion, and hormone production.
Excess levels of LDL cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol are the two types of cholesterol most commonly monitored by healthcare professionals.
Stress management techniques may naturally decrease LDL cholesterol levels and reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
- International Journal of Preventive Medicine. Effect of yoga on lipid profile and C-reactive protein in women.
- American Journal of Physiology. The effects of exercise training on lipid metabolism and coronary heart disease.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews.
- Personality and Individual Differences. The relationship between dispositional gratitude and quality of life: The mediating role of perceived stress and mental health.
- American Journal of Epidemiology. Coffee consumption and serum lipids: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials.
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. Intranasal oxytocin improves lean muscle mass and lowers LDL cholesterol in older adults with sarcopenic obesity: a pilot randomized controlled trial.
- Scientia pharmaceutica. Influence of fragrances on human psychophysiological activity: with special reference to human electroencephalographic response.
- Mindfulness. A randomized controlled trial of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention on cardiovascular reactivity to social-evaluative threat among adults with obesity.
- Frontiers in Psychology. Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers.