Some days your job feeds stress like kindling feeds a fire. Now scientists have learned that job stress stokes something else as well: high cholesterol levels.
A 2013 Spanish study, involving more than 90,000 workers, reports that people suffering from job stress are more likely to have abnormally high levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, and low levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.
That could be affecting many of us: According to the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Work and Well-Being Survey, more than one-third of American workers experience chronic work stress.
So, what’s happening in our bodies as we stress? When we’re feeling anxious, our body’s fluid levels drop, increasing the proportion of cholesterol in our blood, says Dr. Binh An Phan, director of the Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Program at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.
“Long-term stress also raises levels of hormones such as cortisol, which can affect cholesterol,” says Phan. Stress causes a fight-or-flight reaction in our bodies, releasing cortisol, which in turn ups cholesterol levels in order to provide our bodies with more energy and to help with cell repair.
Another possible explanation, says Phan, is that stress raises inflammatory markers: “The rise in inflammatory markers may alter cholesterol metabolism and increase the risk for heart disease.”
A 2012 study at Ohio State University College of Medicine involving 53 caregivers and 77 non-caregivers, for instance, found that stressed caregivers had higher inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and c-reactive protein (CRP) than did the non-caregivers.
Your best bet is to put a lid on your stress. Here’s how.
Overhaul your coping strategies. “Replace eating junk food, smoking, and drinking alcohol with healthy behaviors like exercise, meditation or talking with friends and family,” says Dr. David W. Ballard, assistant executive director for Organizational Excellence, American Psychological Association.
“Such behaviors can be difficult to change, so focus on changing one behavior at a time.”
If you need help, ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health professional, he says. Or check with your Employee Assistance Program to see if it offers stress management resources, including online information, counseling, or referrals to mental health professionals.
Make health a priority. “Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and engage in regular physical activity,” says Ballard. These enhance both physical and mental health, he says.
A 2013 survey of 256 paramedics at Austin-Travis County EMS in Austin, Texas, found that medics who got only 5.5 hours of sleep a night felt more job stress and coped with it in more unhealthy ways—like alcohol, drugs, and overeating—than those who got more sleep. Most of us need 7 to 9 hours a day, according to the American Sleep Association.
Exercising regularly can be one pathway to better sleep—and a way to lower stress. “It also improves cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of heart disease,” says Phan. He suggests exercising at least five times a week, 30 minutes at a time.
Ring the recess bell. “Take a minute or two throughout the day to stand up, stretch, breathe deeply and shake off tension,” says Ballard. “Breaks can help you feel you’ve wrapped up one thing before moving to the next.”
Control your bells and whistles. Turn off your cell phone and let emails go once you get home, says Ballard. Tell colleagues when you’re off duty. “Let technology be a tool that works for you, not the other way around,” he says. It may be a good idea even to limit how often you read emails at work. In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of California-Irvine and the U.S. army found that when they limited workers’ email access for five days, workers’ felt less stress and were able to focus better on tasks.
Hang onto personal time. “No matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself, even if it’s just simple things like reading a good book, listening to a favorite album, or enjoying a Sunday brunch,” says Ballard. According to a 2013 University of Southern Maine of 74 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, two days of fly fishing was just what the doc ordered: Their stress, anxiety, and depression lessened. A day or two of play can work wonders.