Elevated levels of cholesterol in the body have been associated with several ailments – cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, etc.
Those who suffer from high cholesterol often report headaches and dizziness.
But, is there a direct link? Can high cholesterol cause headaches?
We try to find out with an in-depth article that explores how high cholesterol affects your body and how it may lead to headaches.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid or fat produced by the Liver in the body. It’s an essential molecule that is needed to maintain cell membranes and produce key hormones in the body. To transport cholesterol from the Liver to where it’s needed and back to the liver where it gets broken down and eliminated from the body, it needs transport proteins, commonly known as lipoproteins.
The two most common types of cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins are;
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL)
The low-density lipoproteins carry cholesterol from the liver to the cell. When there’s excess cholesterol in the body, it cannot be absorbed by the cells which results in cholesterol buildup in the body. It gets deposited in arteries leading to atherosclerosis that causes heart diseases. Due to the harmful effect of high amounts of LDL in the blood, it’s often called bad cholesterol.
High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL)
The high-density lipoprotein takes cholesterol away from cells and back to the liver, where it’s broken down and expelled from the body. Since HDL prevents excess cholesterol in the body, it is often called good cholesterol. Balancing the LDL and HDL levels in the body is vital to maintain good health and ensure that the heart and other organs function smoothly.
Can high cholesterol cause headaches?
No studies have found a direct link between high cholesterol levels and headaches. It means hypercholesterolemia is not a direct cause of headaches. But, there are several ways that elevated levels of cholesterol in the body can indirectly lead to headaches. It could be because of reduced blood flow, inflammation in neural pathways, and cardiovascular issues, all aggravated by high levels of cholesterol in the body.
How elevated cholesterol levels can lead to headaches?
Headaches are complex and involve several causes from simple to more serious ones. It could be due to health conditions, genetics, lifestyle, etc. While it is not commonly listed as a symptom of high cholesterol, there are several situations where it is an indirect cause of headaches;
- Restricted Blood Flow – High cholesterol is a leading cause of atherosclerosis, a condition where blood flow is restricted due to clogged arteries. It could reduce blood flow to several parts of the body including the brain. When this happens, it can trigger a headache.
- Cholesterol-Induced Inflammation – According to Hopkinsmedicine, high cholesterol can also trigger inflammatory responses in the body. The excess cholesterol in the body gets deposited on macrophages and various other immune cells which then leads to inflammation in the body. This inflammation can affect blood vessels and neural pathways contributing to headaches and joint pain.
Link between Cholesterol, Hypertension, And Headaches
Here again, elevated cholesterol levels aren’t a direct cause of high BP, but it’s a risk factor and can contribute indirectly.
On top of that, headache isn’t a symptom of high BP but in some people, a sudden rise in blood pressure is associated with pain in the head. Increased LDL levels clog arteries and make them stiff.
The decreased blood flow forces the heart to pump harder which can contribute to high BP. Likewise, higher cholesterol levels can cause Endothelial Dysfunction which prevents the inner linings of blood vessels from functioning properly.
As a result blood pressure increases. Blood pressure rises suddenly and can lead to headaches.
Migraines Caused by High Cholesterol
No studies have yet confirmed a direct link between migraines and high cholesterol. In general, migraines are typically considered to be caused by blood vessel dilation. However, that’s not the case with high cholesterol levels – it constricts blood vessels and makes them narrow.
That said, some small-scale studies have found a possible link between migraines and cholesterol, however, they do not prove anything conclusively.
A 2015 study evaluated lipids levels in 52 migraine patients and found higher levels of LDL and triglycerides. As they were treated with cholesterol-lowering drugs, their migraine episodes subsequently decreased.
Besides, high cholesterol levels can trigger inflammatory responses in the body. Also, there’s clear evidence that inflammation can cause migraines. Although, this is not an established fact, inflammation linked to cholesterol can indirectly lead to migraines.
How to treat headaches caused by high cholesterol?
Since headaches are an indirect response to high cholesterol, addressing the underlying cause is the best course to treat it. However, since headaches can have varying causes we recommend that you consult a doctor first. Here’s a general plan to treat headaches that may be caused by cholesterol;
- Seek medical advice to identify the specific cause of your headaches.
- If high cholesterol is indeed a contributing factor, your doctor will suggest the necessary medications and lifestyle changes to lower elevated levels of LDL cholesterol.
- Manage other risk factors like hypotension, diabetes, obesity, etc.
- Over-the-counter pain medications can provide temporary relief from headaches.
- Identify headache triggers like sleep patterns, certain foods, stress, etc.
- Monitor cholesterol levels regularly to ensure it doesn’t exceed optimum limits.
How to lower high levels of LDL cholesterol in the body and prevent headaches?
Correct levels of cholesterol are essential for the smooth functioning of the cardiovascular system and the overall health of the body. Besides, if you suspect cholesterol is a contributing factor to your headaches, addressing cholesterol levels in the body could offer relief from them. Follow these tips to check increased levels of LDL cholesterol;
- Adopt a healthy diet such as whole grains, lean proteins, and fresh vegetables.
- Limit the intake of saturated and trans fats.
- Include foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
- Opt for monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats commonly found in olive oil, nuts, fish, etc.
- Exercise regularly to increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol) in the body.
- Consider plant sterols and stanols that are known to lower LDL cholesterol.
- If lifestyle and dietary measures aren’t enough, consider medications like PCSK9 inhibitors, bile acids, statins, etc. after consulting a doctor.
Cholesterol is not a direct reason for headaches. But it can aggravate conditions that may lead to head pain. Besides, cholesterol is linked to several life-threatening illnesses, therefore its proper management is crucial for a healthy life. By addressing LDL levels in the body, you can boost your heart health and eliminate unpleasant experiences like headaches.