Saturday, December 24, 2005

Stress can raise cholesterol?

I bumped into this article online and and found it fascinating for two reasons. First of all, I think that this article makes me think more about what school psychologists should be doing to increase total health (what I mean by that is Mind + Body Health).

Secondly, I had some experience with this matter, if only second hand. About three years ago, one of my best friends was under a severe amount of stress both at home and at work. His cholesterol levels jumped up to over 800, and the nurse at the doctors office ominously told him that he needed to change his lifestyle, or he would die.

Once he was able to remove himself from those stressful situations, though, his cholesterol levels jumped down below mine (yes, I am part of that Kashii eating, health food craze). The crazy part about that whole scenario was that he evidenced these drops while he was smoking two packs a day, eating McDonalds three times a day and was living out of his truck!!!

Researchers Andrew Steptoe and Lena Brydon from the University College London conducted a study to look at the link between blood levels and stress. Here are some interesting points about this article:

  • Stress had been shown, in previous research, to increase a person's heart rate, lower the immune system's ability to fight colds, increase certain inflammatory markers, and now, increase cholesterol.

  • This study used a sample of 199 men and women. Steptoe and Brydon looked at how people react to stress. Changes in total cholesterol, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), were assessed in the participants before and three years after completing two stress tasks.

  • There was significant variation in the cholesterol levels in the sample after exposure to stress. Those individuals who showed higher cholesterol increases to stress (in responses to the stress tasks in the study) are the individuals most likely to demonstrate the development of higher lipid levels.

  • At the follow up three years later, cholesterol levels in all the participants in the study had gone up, as might be expected through passage of time. However, individuals with larger initial stress responses had substantially greater rises in cholesterol than those with small stress responses. The people in the top third of stress responders were three times more likely to have a level of 'bad' (LDL) cholesterol above clinical thresholds than were people in the bottom third of stress responders.

  • These differences were independent of their baseline levels of cholesterol levels, gender, age, hormone replacement, body mass index, smoking or alcohol consumption.

  • Steptoe and Brydon speculate on the reasons why acute stress responses may raise fasting serum lipids. One possibility may be that stress encourages the body to produce more energy in the form of metabolic fuels - fatty acids and glucose. These substances require the liver to produce and secrete more LDL, which is the principal carrier of cholesterol in the blood. Another reason may be that stress interferes with lipid clearance and a third possibility could be that stress increases production of a number of inflammatory processes like, interleukin 6, tumor necrosis factor and C-Reactive protein that also increase lipid production.

My interest in this article, is the impact that it may have on children. The interplay between stress, health and mental health is so intertwined, that the definition of a school psychologist may need to become broadened to include many other responsibilities and foci. Perhaps we as a field need to learn a great deal more from the health psychology field.

Article: "Associations Between Acute Lipid Stress Responses and Fasting Lipid Levels 3 Years Later," Andrew Steptoe, D.Sc., and Lena Brydon, Ph.D., University College London; Health Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 6.

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