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Does Inflammation Cause High Cholesterol?

Read on to learn more about the link between these two conditions—and actionable strategies for a heart-healthier lifestyle.

By Kaly JohnesPublished 24 days ago 4 min read
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High cholesterol has long been associated with an increased heart disease risk. But did you know that—in addition to factors like diet, exercise and genetics—inflammation may play a role in less-than-optimal cholesterol levels? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 86 million U.S. adults have high cholesterol, while chronic inflammation is linked to various health conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis.

In this article, we'll explore the fascinating relationship between inflammation and high cholesterol and how one can lead to the other.

What's the Link Between Inflammation and High Cholesterol?

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. According to StatPearls, acute inflammation is your body's natural response to injury or infection, like when you get a cut or catch a cold. It's a short-term process that helps your body fight off invaders and heal. Conversely, chronic inflammation is a persistent, low-grade inflammation that can linger for weeks, months or even years and lead to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and autoimmune diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Chronic inflammation is the type to be concerned about regarding your cholesterol levels and overall health. Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a registered dietitian and author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet, tells EatingWell, "Chronic inflammation over time can lead to a reduction in "good" HDL cholesterol, while increasing "bad" LDL levels. This inflammation can also irritate blood vessels and cause plaque buildup, eventually leading to atherosclerosis."

A 2018 study published in Nutrients found that in addition to lowering HDL and bumping up LDL levels, chronic inflammation also increased triglycerides and lipoprotein(a)—all biomarkers for cardiovascular disease. And according to 2022 research published in Antioxidants, chronic inflammation triggers the release of substances that can lead to the accumulation of cholesterol in your artery walls, potentially leading to heart disease and other cardiovascular issues. Another 2022 study, also from Nutrients, found that chronic inflammation can disrupt the balance of fats in your bloodstream, potentially raising your cholesterol levels further.

The reverse is also true—meaning that high cholesterol levels can promote inflammation, namely by damaging the inner lining of your blood vessels (called endothelial dysfunction). This triggers an inflammatory response, causing cholesterol to build up and form plaque, narrowing your arteries and elevating heart disease risk, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

There are steps you can take, however, to tamp down inflammation and cholesterol levels.

How to Reduce Inflammation to Prevent High Cholesterol

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats like nuts, seeds, salmon and avocados. Equally important: Try to limit or avoid processed foods, sugary snacks and saturated fats that can trigger inflammation.

"Consuming a diet low in saturated fat and added sugars while increasing your intake of dietary fiber and antioxidants is one of the best ways to combat chronic inflammation," says Palinski-Wade.

13 Best and Worst Snacks for Inflammation

Stay active. Engage in regular physical activity to help reduce chronic inflammation and promote overall health. The Physical Guidelines for Americans recommends healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. This includes activities like brisk walking, cycling and swimming.

Manage stress. Being in a state of frazzle can contribute to low-grade chronic inflammation, according to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as practicing mindfulness meditation, deep-breathing exercises or engaging in hobbies that help you relax and unwind.

Maintain a healthy weight. Carrying excess pounds, especially around your midsection, can increase both inflammation and cholesterol levels, according to a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is within reach by adopting a balanced diet and incorporating regular exercise into your routine. Eat more fruits and veggies, reduce processed foods and do physical activities you enjoy. If you need additional support, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Get enough sleep. According to a 2020 study from Frontiers in Genetics, poor sleep can contribute to inflammation and negatively impact cholesterol levels. The CDC

1. Can you reduce your cholesterol by lowering inflammation?

Reducing inflammation can help lower cholesterol levels. Chronic inflammation can contribute to high cholesterol by affecting how your body produces and clears cholesterol. Aiming to incorporate anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes can bring good things for your heart health.

2. What are the signs of inflammation in the body?

Signs of inflammation can vary but may include redness, swelling, pain or warmth in the affected area if it's acute. Signs of chronic inflammation are trickier to pinpoint, but may include fatigue, fever and general malaise. However, chronic inflammation is often internal, so it may not have noticeable symptoms and can only be detected through medical tests.

"Chronic inflammation can cause fatigue, gastrointestinal discomfort, poor sleep and changes in clinical data, including elevated inflammatory markers such as CRP levels," says Palinski-Wade.

3. Does an anti-inflammatory diet lower cholesterol?

Absolutely. According to the NIH, eating whole, nutrient-dense foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, will support heart health and reduce cholesterol.

"Although reducing inflammation itself may not lower total cholesterol levels, many dietary changes that can lower inflammation levels can also reduce blood lipids," says Palinski-Wade. "For instance, adding food rich in antioxidants can also contribute more soluble fiber to the diet. This fiber helps bind to cholesterol and carry it out of the body. Reducing dietary intake of added sugars and saturated fat can help to reduce inflammation, and by limiting these nutrients in the diet, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels also decline."

4. What can cause unusually high cholesterol?

Several factors can contribute to unusually high cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, these may include a diet high in saturated and trans fats, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, genetic factors and age.

"Unusually high cholesterol levels can be caused by genetic factors, lifestyle or underlying medical conditions," explains Palinski-Wade. "Smoking, a sedentary lifestyle or a diet high in saturated fat and added sugar with little fiber can all lead to rising cholesterol levels. Even high stress levels over a prolonged period can cause cholesterol to rise. Obesity can also increase cholesterol levels in some individuals."

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