For many of us, lifestyle can mean the difference between developing diseases or staying healthy. A healthy lifestyle consists of the usual things we’ve heard of time and again – eating a balanced diet, exercising, and managing stress. But there’s one that we often seem to forget or don’t always make a priority: sleep. Without enough of it, we set ourselves up for numerous issues one of which includes unhealthy cholesterol levels.
When we think of cholesterol, we normally associate it with a poor diet and a lack of exercise. While these certainly contribute, sleep deprivation can also have an impact. The link between the two is still being researched, but studies have shown that there’s a pretty strong connection. One that we would do well to heed!
Before examining the relationship between sleep and cholesterol, let’s take a look at what exactly cholesterol is and why it’s important to keep it from spiking. Cholesterol is a lipid, which is a fat-like molecule that’s found in cells. Our bodies need a certain amount of it as it helps us digest food and build and maintain membranes. There are two main types of cholesterol – HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol or ‘good’ cholesterol and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or ‘bad’ cholesterol. When we talk about having high cholesterol, we mean having high LDL. HDL is responsible for removing excess cholesterol from the body, and we want to keep it on the higher side.
If you have too much cholesterol, it can become fatty deposits in blood vessels and prevent blood from flowing smoothly through arteries. When the heart doesn’t get enough blood, you’re at risk of developing heart disease. Your brain is affected too as a lack of blood can cause a stroke. High cholesterol is typically a result of poor lifestyle choices although it can be hereditary.
An unhealthy lifestyle with respect to high cholesterol can include a poor diet, being overweight, leading a sedentary lifestyle, and not getting enough sleep. It’s this last factor that we sometimes tend to overlook, perhaps because sleep deprivation seems to have become the norm in today’s world.
In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers analyzed the data to see how lack of sleep affects metabolism and inflammation. They found that people who were sleep deprived for prolonged periods had changes in the pathways that regulate cholesterol metabolism and inflammation. These changes included a reduction of HDL. In the analysis, LDL was also found to be low, but it’s the reduction in HDL that highlights the risk of developing heart disease.
In another study by the University of Pennsylvania, researchers checked the data of over 5,000 people and examined the number of hours they slept and the risk factors for heart disease. They found that those who slept for five hours or less were more likely to report having unhealthy cholesterol levels and other conditions like obesity and high blood pressure.
So far, we’ve seen that studies have shown a relationship between sleep deprivation and cholesterol. But how does sleep deprivation actually cause high cholesterol? When you don’t get enough sleep, you develop insulin resistance that can interfere with how the body metabolizes sugar and fat. It can elevate LDL levels, which should be on the lower side.
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Lack of sleep can also cause an imbalance in leptin and ghrelin, which are hormones that regulate food intake and stimulate appetite. This imbalance can cause you to feel hungrier than normal and lead to weight gain by compelling you to eat. Being overweight is known to lower HDL and increase LDL. Poor sleep arising out of sleep disorders like apnea can also cause LDL to rise and push down HDL. It’s not clear why this happens, but it does. It’s important to treat sleep apnea in order to manage cholesterol.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of sleep especially when we have a thousand and one things to do. It’s only when we feel something’s wrong that we sit up and realize we need to take it seriously. High cholesterol is not the only outcome of sleep deprivation, as we’ve seen. There are so many more, some of which we may not be aware of like low testosterone in men, a weakened immune system, and impulsive emotional response. It’s time we gave better sleep the importance it deserves. There’s just too much to lose otherwise!