Low HDL May Increase Risk for Depression and Stress

Health Professional

Funny thing: When people come to the office or hospital and have cholesterol panels drawn, if the situation is unhappy─e.g., stress at home, financial struggles, or hospitalization (usually an unhappy occasion)─HDL cholesterols drop, sometimes precipitously. They can often drop 20 or more mg/dl.

Agnes, for example, was proud of the fact that she'd raised HDL over the past year from 42 mg/dl range all the way up to 71 mg/dl. She did it by eliminating wheat and cornstarch from her diet, losing 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.

But Agnes had to go to the hospital for an elective procedure, a procedure she'd been dreading for many months but had to be done. She wore her dread and anxiety on her face while wringing her hands. 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. Ouch

Although Agnes will recover and her HDL will rebound, similar phenomena can occur during other stresses, 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.

My take home message: Maintain a sense of optimism and engage in activities that bring you satisfaction and enjoyment to help raise your HDL, including strategies such as those followed by Agnes. HDL is important, since higher levels are associated with much reduced risk for heart disease . . . and perhaps depression.

Related posts:

A Lifetime of Stress Could Be a Precursor to Stroke

The Wheat-free Life: Lunch and Dinner

Group Urges Depression Screening for Heart Patients