You sit in traffic for nearly an hour on the way to work, fearing the entire time that you will be late (again) and face your boss’s wrath. When you finally arrive at the office, you discover an overflowing inbox, a ringing phone and an unhappy client. After spending an hour fixing a copier paper jam (and getting ink all over your best shirt), you barely have time to wolf down a snack from the vending machine for “lunch” before you sit through back-to-back meetings all afternoon — and then leave the office an hour late, feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything all day.
If this sounds like a typical day, you would probably use one word to describe your job: Stressful. And when you compound that stress with the stress of managing home and family responsibilities, it’s no small miracle that you manage to get through each day without having some sort of breakdown.
We all know that stress can have a profound effect on our body and mood. Stress can cause fatigue, headaches, upset stomach and sleep disturbances among other issues. It can also cause sadness, irritability, anger and anxiety. However, beyond the obvious outward physical effects, stress can also have profound effects internally — and surprisingly, one of those effects is an increase in cholesterol.
The Stress Cholesterol Connection
Most of us think of cholesterol as something that comes from the food we eat. We hear it all the time: Avoid saturated fats, especially fast food, as they contain unhealthy levels of cholesterol that will clog our arteries and contribute to heart disease. However, what few people realize is that cholesterol doesn’t just come from outside sources. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why, but increased levels of poorly managed stress have a tendency to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In addition, stress that’s not managed or addressed in unhealthy ways, i.e., anger or frustration, or bottled up, leads to lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
The exact cause of the fluctuations in cholesterol may not be known, but doctors have a few theories. When humans face stress — say, in the form of a displeased boss — their bodies create more metabolic fuels (cortisol and adrenaline) to power the natural “fight or flight” response. These hormones signal to the brain to create more energy, raising blood-glucose levels and essentially shutting down the fat cells; basically, they trick your brain into going into survival mode, so your body will use the extra glucose first until you “escape” the stressful situation. The problem? Most people don’t have to literally flee a stressful situation or fight a predator, and most of that metabolic energy goes unused. As a result, the liver converts the excess blood sugar into triglycerides — which raise cholesterol.
However, some doctors have other theories as to the stress-cholesterol connection. Some postulate that stress causes inflammation, which in turn can raise bad cholesterol levels. Others suggest raised cholesterol is due more to one’s behavior when stressed, specifically one’s eating habits. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to make poor food choices and reach for high-fat, “comfort” foods than when we’re not, and those dietary choices significantly affect cholesterol levels. In any case, over time, when you are constantly stressed and not dealing with it effectively, your cholesterol levels will remain elevated, and that is never a good thing.
Reduce Stress, Reduce Cholesterol
The fact is stress is a part of life. It’s virtually unavoidable. However, when you understand the impact that prolonged, extreme stress can have on your overall health, you realize that it’s important to take steps toward improving the problem. To that end, if you feel that you are constantly “stressed out” and are worried about your health, take the following steps to improve both your physical and mental well-being.
Get plenty of sleep. Doctors recommend between 6-8 hours of shuteye each night.
Exercise. Not only does hitting the gym help keep your heart healthy by keeping your weight in check, exercise is also proven to help relieve anxiety and increase the amount of endorphins, or “happy hormones” that your body produces. Exercise, even if it’s just a short walk around the block, can also help you clear your mind, refocus and find a way to more effectively handle a stressful situation.
Assess your situation. What is it that is causing you the most stress each day? Your commute? Your overflowing inbox? Your kids’ misbehavior? If you can pinpoint the source of your stress, you can make changes to reduce it. That could mean taking a different route to work each day, or working with your boss to redistribute your workload.
Maintain a healthy diet. Remind yourself that hitting the drive-thru for a greasy cheeseburger isn’t going to make you feel better, and make only make you feel worse. Keep a supply of healthy snacks on hand, and spend some time preparing a healthy mood to help keep your blood sugar and cholesterol in check.
Again, stress is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to kill you — or at least make you very sick. Learn to manage it effectively, and you’ll stay healthier and happier.