The Deadly Nature of Chronic Stress and Cholesterol

When stress is chronic and the “fight or flight” response remains activated, it puts tremendous strain on the body. The stress hormones cause the release of triglycerides and free fatty acids, which can harm cholesterol numbers and lipid ratios.

Higher stress levels are also associated with poor lifestyle choices such as an unhealthy diet, less movement, and higher body weight.

What chronic stress has to do with abnormal cholesterol

We often think of the mind and body as independent of each other, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Think about it – you have nerve cells controlling almost every process in your body. The nervous system can make or break your cardiovascular health.

Acute stress is a normal reaction to an overwhelming event. Chronic stress can be problematic because it keeps the body in a prolonged state of tension, which can place a lot of strain on the body. As a result, your cholesterol can become abnormal, increasing the risk of severe consequences. 

Let’s explore the relationship between stress and cholesterol and talk about steps you can take to help your heart health.

What you need to know about cholesterol

Cholesterol has a bad reputation, but it is actually an important molecule produced by the liver. It supplies crucial vitamins and nutrients and supports mitochondrial health. Cholesterol gets transported through the body by high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). 

You may have heard that HDL is “good cholesterol” and LDL is “bad cholesterol,” but this isn’t the whole truth. LDL particles can be healthy and useful. 

Problems occur when LDL particles interact with free radicals, unstable particles that cause damage. This causes oxidation of the LDL particles, contributing to cardiovascular disease.

Another dangerous molecule you may not have heard of is Lp(a). This is a lipoprotein that carries an LDL-like molecule called apolipoprotein(a). Lp(a) molecules are very predictive of cardiovascular risk but are usually not tested in conventional settings

As you can see, it’s not as simple as “good cholesterol” versus “bad cholesterol.” For the lowest cardiovascular risk, you should aim for:

  • Low levels of oxidized LDL particles
  • Low levels of Lp(a)
  • Reduced triglycerides
  • Adequate levels of HDL
  • Adequate levels of healthy LDL particles 

It’s a common myth that a high-fat diet contributes to bad cholesterol. Your cardiovascular system needs healthy fats. The two main culprits of abnormal cholesterol are a high-sugar diet and a high-stress lifestyle.

How do I know if my cholesterol is abnormal?

If your doctor has told you that you have high cholesterol, don’t panic yet. Conventional labs don’t test for particle size or for molecules such as Lp(a). 

It’s important to perform more detailed testing before jumping to conclusions about your cardiovascular risk. At Natural Heart Doctor, our comprehensive testing allows us to see the whole picture.

How does stress increase cholesterol levels?

A recent study showed that individuals who experienced stressful situations were at increased risk of abnormal cholesterol. But how exactly does this happen? 

When you experience stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight,” activates. The body prepares to respond to a threat and starts pumping out a stress hormone called cortisol.

The consequences of cortisol

Cortisol causes the release of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which can also cause a spike in free fatty acids, increasing the risk of obesity and insulin resistance, and high blood sugar.

High blood sugar triggers the release of triglycerides and harmful LDL particles. Carrying excess fat can cause chronic low-grade inflammation, another contributor to bad cholesterol.

The cycle of stress, inflammation, and cholesterol

Cortisol can cause a spike in inflammation, which can worsen abnormal cholesterol. In turn, abnormal cholesterol can further ramp up inflammation. 

If left untreated, this can become a dangerous self-perpetuating cycle. This is why prevention and early treatment are so important. Once you’re stuck in this feedback loop, it can be challenging to break out of it.

The life-threatening consequences of stress

The impact of stress on cholesterol can lead to dangerous conditions and mortality.

As we’ve discussed, LDL particles are not always bad. But, when LDL particles become oxidized, they attach themselves to blood vessel walls. This creates atherosclerosis, which is plaque formation on the vessel walls. Atherosclerosis significantly increases the risk of:

Triglycerides and Lp(a) particles can have similar consequences. High levels of these particles contribute to plaque formation and associated conditions.

Manage stress and lower cholesterol naturally

Most doctors will treat high cholesterol with a statin, a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug with potentially severe consequences. Statins interfere with the body’s natural mechanisms and can reduce overall cholesterol, destroying harmful particles along with beneficial ones.

The human body can maintain normal cholesterol levels, but you have to make sure you’re giving it the support it needs. This is why stress management is so necessary for supporting healthy cholesterol.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a great tool for learning how to manage stress better. Research shows that it can decrease cardiovascular risk factors, including high cholesterol. There are many free apps and videos online for guided mediation.

Yoga

Yoga combines the mindfulness aspect of meditation with endorphin-boosting exercise. Regular yoga practice reduces cortisol levels, high cholesterol, and blood pressure – boosting heart health on all fronts! If you’re unable to get to an in-person class, there are free or affordable virtual classes.

Deep Breathing

If you’re limited on time, some deep breaths may be all you need. Most people ignore the quality of their breathing. Deep, slow breaths can trigger the vagus nerve and reduce cortisol levels. Set alarms on your phone throughout the day to remind yourself to breathe.

Support stress and cholesterol with supplements

Supplements can be a powerful tool for lowering stress and supporting cholesterol. The following supplements are generally safe and have minimal side effects. It’s always a good idea to talk to a supportive doctor when starting a new supplement protocol.

  • Berberine

Berberine is a plant-based supplement that can help alleviate stress. This supplement also supports cholesterol by increasing the number of LDL receptors on the liver. This reduces the amount of LDL in circulation. 

  • Magnesium

Magnesium is a necessary mineral for mental health and stress management. Researchers estimate that 48 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough of it in their diet, and supplementation is often necessary. Low magnesium may lead to high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and many other conditions.

  • Fish oil

Fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce stress and inflammation. A recent study showed that supplementation with Omega-3 led to a significant reduction in LDL and triglyceride levels. Fresh wild-caught seafood is the best source, but supplements can be helpful.

Next steps

When life gets busy and chaotic, stress management can feel like an uphill battle. It may seem impossible to find time to decompress, let alone make changes to your diet and supplements. But the scary alternative is destroyed heart health – the potential for heart attacks, strokes, and death. Stress management is necessary for normalizing your cholesterol and achieving your 100 Year Heart. Start with a few deep breaths, and you’re already on your way!

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 


Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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