Chronic Stress Leading to Cholesterol

Studies are showing that a combination of chronic stress and high cholesterol could lead to heart disease if not quickly addressed.

For years, doctors have lectured that cutting stress has a positive impact on overall health. Now, growing research is proving that they are correct. Recurrent or daily stress can indeed affect cholesterol and eventually lead to heart disease.

A stressed man sitting at computer rubbing his face

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The Fight or Flight Response in Stress

For all its unpleasant sensations, from sweaty palms to a pounding heart, fear is the body's way of protecting itself against danger. In prehistoric times, the threat may have been a hungry bear. Today, it's more likely to be a demanding boss.

When this happens, the body jumps into action. The hypothalamus, a gland located near the brain stem, triggers the release of two hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—that speed up the heart, stimulate the release of energy and increase blood flow to the brain. The body is preparing itself to either stay and fight or run.

The same chemical reaction occurs whether the threat is immediate physical harm or the potential loss of income and prestige.

Stress Hormones and Cholesterol

Both adrenaline and cortisol trigger the production of cholesterol, which is the waxy, fatty substance the liver makes to provide the body with energy and repair damaged cells. The problem is that too much cholesterol can clog the arteries and eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.

One theory is that the stress hormones function this way to provide fuel for a potential fight or flight situation. But if this energy is not used—as with modern-day stressors that don't require an actual physical fight or escape—it is gradually accumulated as fat tissue, somewhere in the body.

Cortisol has the additional effect of creating more sugar, the body's short-term energy source.

In recurrent stressful situations, sugars are repeatedly unused and are eventually converted into triglycerides or other fatty acids. Research has also indicated that these fatty deposits are more likely to end up in the abdomen. And those with more abdominal fat are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The Personality Factor in Stress

Each person has a different physiological reaction to stress. Some research suggests that an individual's personality type—classified by the letters A, B, C, D, and E—can predict that response. Types A and D are high-stress personalities. Those with Type A personality are typically time-oriented, focused and detail-oriented. People with type D (or the "distressed" type) personality are known for repressing their feelings.

Individuals who have either a type A or D personality seem especially sensitive to stress hormones. This means that their heart rates increase, arteries restrict and sugars are released into the bloodstream at higher rates than those with more relaxed personality types.

Coping With Stress

According to a study presented at the 2007 American Psychological Association convention, white men capable of coping with stress had higher "good" cholesterol (HDL) levels than their peers who were less able to cope. The "good" cholesterol is the kind that helps cleanse the body of fat.

Research at the University of Missouri Science and Technology found 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 appointments and tasks.

The National Institutes of Health suggests several methods for reducing stress. These methods include relaxation techniques, such as exercise, yoga, gardening or music; eating a healthy diet; sleeping at least 8 hours each night; and establishing a network of friends and family for support. Experts also recommend talking to a psychotherapist if stress becomes too much to handle.

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