What Causes Your Cholesterol Numbers to Spike?

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Poor diet and lack of exercise are among the causes of cholesterol spikes.
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Keeping your cholesterol in check is key to a healthy heart and blood vessels. Every 1 percent decrease in your cholesterol lowers your risk for heart disease by 2 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Your cholesterol numbers can spike due to many factors, many of which you can control.

Causes of Cholesterol Spikes

"Cholesterol levels can vary based on dietary consumption or other cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity or other disease states such as hypothyroidism," says Guy L. Mintz, MD, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York. "Other causes of elevated cholesterol despite a prudent diet of less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day include less receptors or defective receptors for LDL cholesterol."

Read more: What to Eat to Lower LDL (Bad) Cholesterol Quickly

It's not uncommon for a person's cholesterol numbers to fluctuate. "Cholesterol spikes can be caused by dietary changes, weight gain, lack of exercise, manifestation of LDL receptor dysfunction or onset of other disease states," Dr. Mintz says.

Other behaviors that can cause your cholesterol to spike include smoking, exposure to tobacco smoke and weight gain, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). More often than not, a spike in cholesterol comes down to unhealthy behavior, but heredity can also play a role.

However, a brief spike in cholesterol is not necessarily a cause for major concern, according to Dr. Mintz. "Patients should not be fixated on looking at cholesterol changes in days or weeks but in months," he explains. "I will give lower-risk patients three to six months to demonstrate effective lifestyle modification."

Preventing and Stopping Cholesterol Spikes

To prevent cholesterol spikes, you should discuss your individualized cardiovascular risk with your physician, Dr. Mintz says. He assigns a risk score to each of his patients and makes recommendations, including possible medical therapy, based on the score.

"Patients should view their doctors as a teammate, not an adversary," he adds. "It will take a combination of proper diet, exercise and medications for some to lower their cholesterol and, in doing so, lower their cardiovascular risk. Lowering cholesterol is just one part of the formula to reduce cardiovascular events." According to the Cleveland Clinic, your cholesterol goals should be:

  • Total cholesterol (HDL, LDL, other lipoproteins): lower than 200 milligrams per deciliter
  • Triglycerides: lower than 150 milligrams per deciliter
  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein): lower than 130 milligrams per deciliter; less than 100 milligrams per deciliter for those with heart or blood vessel disease and for those with diabetes or high total cholesterol
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein): for women, higher than 55 milligrams per deciliter; for men, higher than 45 milligrams per deciliter

If you do have high cholesterol, the good news, according to the AHA, is that you can make lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol numbers.

Dr. Mintz concurs. For people having swings in cholesterol, a strict low-cholesterol diet of less than 200 milligrams per day is in order, he says. "With doctor supervision, organized patients can use an app to input their food intake to keep track of their cholesterol consumption," he says. "Other patients should meet with a registered dietitian with an expertise in lipid or cholesterol management to get on track."

He notes that written food logs are very important in dietary interventions. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity of 150 to 300 minutes a week — or vigorous aerobic activity of 75 to 150 minutes a week — is also recommended.

Read more: 10 Dos and Don'ts for Using a Food Diary

For some people with intermediate to high cardiovascular risk, medication is also recommended. "For patients that require cholesterol medication, primarily statins, patients get multiple benefits beyond lowering cholesterol, such as stabilization of any cholesterol build-up or plaque that is present as well as an anti-inflammatory benefit," Dr. Mintz says.

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