Cut Stress, Help Your Cholesterol

Stressed Out? Better Relax for Your Cholesterol's Sake, Study Shows

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 22, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 22, 2005 -- How you handle stress could affect your cholesterol levels, for better or worse, according to new research from London.

No one knows exactly how it works. But in a nutshell, the findings go like this:

If you melt down under pressure, letting stress run amok, your cholesterol may worsen more in a few years compared with people who don't get bent out of shape by stress.

The study by Andrew Steptoe, DSc, and colleagues from University College London appears in Health Psychology.

Stress Study

The study included nearly 200 middle-aged government workers in London.

Both men and women participated as part of a long-term health study. Virtually all were white. None had a history of coronary heart disease or high blood pressure.

First, participants gave blood samples and rated their stress level. Then, they took two stress tests.

One test mismatched words and colors. For instance, the word "blue" was written in yellow type. Participants had to name the color in which the words appeared (yellow, in our example).

In another test, participants were under a deadline to trace the outline of a star in a mirror. Accuracy was emphasized, but participants were told that on average, people traced the star five times per test.

Afterwards, participants gave more blood and rated their stress levels again. Three years later, another cholesterol check was done.

Cholesterol, Stress Link

Cholesterol rose for everyone, to some degree, immediately after the stress test and three years later.

Those with the biggest cholesterol increases after the stress tests tended to have the biggest rises in cholesterol after three years.

The researchers set high, medium, and low thresholds for total cholesterol at the three-year follow-up. Those hitting the high threshold included:

  • 16% of participants who had initially shown little cholesterol reaction to the stress tests
  • 22% of those who had initially shown moderate cholesterol reactions to the stress tests
  • More than half (56%) of those with the biggest initial cholesterol reactions to the stress test

No differences were seen in results for men and women, the researchers report. They adjusted for factors including body mass index (BMI), smoking, hormone therapy, and alcohol use (but not diet).

Simulating Stress

The short stress tests showed how people -- and their cholesterol levels -- responded to stress.

"The cholesterol responses that we measured in the lab probably reflect the way people react to challenges in everyday life, as well," Steptoe says, in a news release.

"So, the larger cholesterol responders to stress tasks will be large responders to emotional situations in their lives," he continues.

"It is these responses in everyday life that accumulate to lead to an increase in fasting cholesterol or lipid levels three years later," Steptoe says. Lipids refer to fats in the blood.

"It appears that a person's reaction to stress is one mechanism through which higher lipid levels may develop," Steptoe says.

Handling Stress

Stress can wear different faces, such as coping with a chronic illness, making a big presentation at work, recovering from a loss, or juggling your time and budget during the holidays.

Stress can ebb and flow over time. Plus, people handle stress differently. What drives one person batty may be no big deal or an interesting challenge to another.

You probably can't rid your life of stress. But, you can learn to handle stress better. Exercise, meditation, and counseling are some resources you may want to explore.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Steptoe, A. Health Psychology, November 2005; vol 24: pp 601-607. News release, American Psychological Association. WebMD Medical Reference in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Managing Stress."

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