Why winter raises cholesterol levels

If you’re like me, you load up on layers as you get dressed in the mornings during colder months.

Turns out, on average we don’t only carry around more clothing…

We also tend to carry more circulating cholesterol around.

At least that’s what researchers at Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease have shown.

Behavioral Influences

Their study highlighted that this seasonal shift in cholesterol is closely tied to our behaviors.

In the summer, when the weather is warmer, people are more inclined to be active and engage in healthier habits. Conversely, the colder months usher in a tendency to indulge in comfort foods rich in easily digested carbohydrates and fats, coupled with a decline in physical activity.

This all results in a lipid signature associated with higher heart disease risk.

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Study Insights

The study, based on data from 2.8 million U.S. adults, discovered that both LDL cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol, commonly known as the “bad” cholesterol, were 3.5 percent higher in men and 1.7 percent higher in women during the winter. Additionally, triglyceride levels, linked to obesity and inactivity, saw a 2.5 percent increase in men during the colder season.

Given that there is a linear correlation between percentage shifts in LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk, these changes are not inconsequential. We know that there is some seasonal variation in heart attack rates.  Seasonal LDL variation could absolutely be a contributor. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Cardiovascular Health

Beyond dietary and activity changes, the researchers also considered the impact of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) on cardiovascular health.

SAD, often associated with mood changes during winter, can lead to a desire for comfort foods and lethargy.  SAD is also associated with increased risk for heart disease.

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Winter and Cardiovascular Risks

All of this data aligns with prior research indicating that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can increase the risk of heart attacks.

During winter, blood vessels tend to constrict, increasing the workload on the heart. Piling on less physical activity, less healthful eating habits, worse cholesterol profiles and SAD does not help. 

Key Insights for Heart-Healthy Living

It’s important to put all this in perspective. Especially as we’ve just gone through a polar vortex! Just because it’s winter, obsessive monitoring of cholesterol levels during winter is not necessary. Just try to do your best to maintain your healthy habits throughout the year. Acknowledging the seasonal impact on health behaviors should simply remind us to make better choices and prioritize cardiovascular wellness — perhaps even more intentionally during colder weather.

After all, heart health is always in season.

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Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

By Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

"Diet is a major driver of high cholesterol, but instead of changing the food, we prescribe medications. This never seemed logical to me.” Dr. Klodas has dedicated her career to preventive cardiology. Trained at Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, she is the founder and Chief Medical Officer for Step One Foods. Dr. Klodas is a nationally sought out speaker and has an active role at the American College of Cardiology. Her clinical interests include prevention of heart disease and non-invasive cardiac imaging and she has published dozens of scientific articles throughout her career. Dr. Klodas has been featured on CNN Health for her mission to change how heart disease is treated. An independent study performed at leading medical institutions affirmed the ability of Step One Foods to deliver measurable and meaningful cholesterol-reduction benefits in the real world. The results of the trial were presented at the 2018 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. Dr. Klodas has also authored a book for patients, "Slay the Giant: The Power of Prevention in Defeating Heart Disease," and served as founding Editor-in-Chief of the patient education effort of the American College of Cardiology. In addition to her practice and her duties at Step One Foods, she also serves as medical editor for webMD.