What role do emotions play in HDL cholesterol?
I’ve often observed a peculiar phenomenon: People who come to the office or hospital in the midst of a difficult emotional situation-e.g., stress at home, financial struggles, hospitalization (usually an unhappy occasion)- can show dramatic drops in HDL cholesterol. Not uncommonly, HDL drops 20 or more mg/dl.
Take Agnes’s case. Agnes had to go to the hospital for an elective procedure, one she’d been dreading for months. Previously, Agnes had been proud of the fact that she’d incrased HDL from 42 mg/dl range all the way up to 71 mg/dl. She accomplished this dramatic increase by eliminating wheat and cornstarch from her diet (which helped her lose 24 lbs), taking vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, exercise, 2 oz of dark chocolate per day, and a glass of red wine with dinner.
Although I wouldn’t have bothered checking a cholesterol panel for such a procedure, the hospital had a checklist that included a cholesterol panel regardless of necessity. (Such checklists are common in hospitals, meant to ensure that certain basic issues are not overlooked.)
Agnes’ HDL: 29 mg/dl-a 42 mg drop.
Agnes will recover and her HDL will rebound, but the same effect can occur with other stressful situations, such as death in the family, financial worries, marital stress, etc., as well as physical illness.
Interestingly, the opposite may also hold true: Low HDL may increase risk for depression and stress. A study from Finland of 124 depressed persons, for instance, showed a 240% increased likelihood of depression in those with lower HDL cholesterols.
In other words, there seems to be a curious interdependence between HDL and emotions.
Why? Does it represent the indirect effect of adrenaline, cortisol, or other “stress hormones”? Do factors that relate to low HDL, such as unhealthy diet full of carbohydrates and physical inactivity, also tend to cultivate depression?
It certainly seems to be a chicken-egg situation, with one often leading to the other.
Moral of the story: Maintaining a sense of optimism and engaging in activities that bring you satisfaction and enjoyment can help raise HDL, as can strategies such as those followed by Agnes. Avoiding unnecessarily stressful situations can help. HDL is important, since higher levels are associated with much reduced risk for heart disease . . . and perhaps depression.
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