Stress and Cholesterol: Is There a Link?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on July 18, 2023
4 min read

Is stress linked to high cholesterol? The short is yes. Feeling under pressure for a long time can raise your risk of high cholesterol and even heart disease.

But you can take steps to get your stress under control and protect your heart.

Everyone has stress from time to time, whether from work, financial trouble, family problems, or facing a big life change, like moving.

When you’re feeling strained, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that rev up your heart, sharpen your brain, and help you deal with problems. A little stress may even be good for you by helping you focus on a challenge in your life and work harder to overcome it.

Constant stress is another story. If it’s nonstop and lasts for a long time, your stress hormones remain at high levels and put a dangerous strain on your heart and other parts of your body. High levels of cortisol from chronic or long-term stress can cause high blood cholesterol, along with other heart disease risks.

Over time, excess LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol can build up in your arteries, causing them to become clogged and hard. Stress also triggers inflammation that lowers your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, which helps clear out extra LDL.

In general, healthy adults should have:

If high levels of stress are part of your daily life, you are at risk for high cholesterol, according to research.

  • In a large study of more than 91,500 adults in different professions, job-related stress was linked to high cholesterol, including high LDL and low HDL cholesterol. People with high work stress were also more likely to take cholesterol medicine.
  • In a study of law enforcement officers from Iowa, women had more stress and higher rates of high cholesterol and diabetes than male officers, as well as other women in the state. Female officers who had high stress also tended to be overweight or obese, and 77% of them pointed to their stress as a major reason for their health problems.
  • In another study of 439 bus, truck, or taxi drivers, those with high levels of work-related stress were more likely to have high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Part of the link between stress and cholesterol lies in the ways people often handle their stress. In tough times, you may eat unhealthy foods and gain weight, smoke, drink too much alcohol, or spend more time on the couch than exercising. All of these raise your risk of high cholesterol.

If you already have high cholesterol, stress may make it worse. In one study of about 200 middle-aged men and women with high cholesterol who were tracked for 3 years, people with higher levels of stress had elevated cholesterol compared with those who had lower stress.

Young, fit, and otherwise healthy people may have high cholesterol during stressful times in their lives. A study of 208 college students who were 30 or younger had blood tests around the time of their exams. At this stressful time, the students showed higher levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and cholesterol, including total and LDL cholesterol.

Fight the urge to overeat, binge on junk food or alcohol, or smoke when you’re stressed. All of these may seem to help you relax, but they’re short-term fixes that have long-term effects on your health.

These unhealthy habits can also raise cholesterol. Lifestyle changes like exercise, healthy eating, and not smoking can help you manage your cholesterol and stress at the same time.

For high-quality stress relief:

  • Connect with friends, family members, or co-workers who lift your spirits. Set up an in-person visit, phone call, or online chat.
  • Volunteer in your community. Doing something to help others may boost your mood and help destress.
  • Start a journal or blog to express your thoughts. Work through emotions on the page instead of keeping stress bottled up.
  • Listen to music. If you’re stressed out, slow-tempo music can soothe and relax you, while faster beats are good when you need to boost your spirits.
  • Get regular exercise to release endorphins, natural chemicals that ease stress. When you’re in shape, you can deal with stress more effectively. Your blood pressure and heart rate may not spike as much even when you’re stressed out.
  • Try mind-body practices that relax you, including mindfulness, meditation, or yoga routines.

Could your stress be due to something more serious, like anxiety disorder? While symptoms may be similar, anxiety disorder usually causes feelings of intense fear or panic that come on quickly and happen more often than typical stress.

See your doctor if you have any of these serious signs:

  • You feel like you cannot deal with your stress or worries.
  • Worry and stress interfere with your marriage or your job.
  • You feel depressed or use alcohol or drugs to lower stress.
  • You’ve thought about suicide.

They’ll examine you to diagnose an anxiety disorder or depression, then refer you for other treatment if you need it.