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What Can Cause a Sudden Increase in Cholesterol?

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High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. Please continue reading to learn more about some factors that can lead to a sudden increase in your cholesterol numbers.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the liver. It is also present in foods like meat, dairy products, and fried foods that contain trans fats and saturated fats. 

Cholesterol is not all bad. The body uses it to make hormones and vitamins and build cell membranes. But too much cholesterol in the body can be harmful. Cholesterol particles can form fatty deposits in the blood vessels. These fatty plaques can block blood flow, leading to cardiovascular disease

There is more than one type of cholesterol in the body, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol), very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), triglycerides, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol or “good” cholesterol). 

What is normal cholesterol?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) is considered normal. 

Approximately 40% of adults in the United States have high cholesterol (total cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher). Excess cholesterol in the body is one of the risk factors for serious health problems like coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

The only way to tell if you have high blood cholesterol is through a simple blood test called a blood lipid profile. Blood lipid profiles measure LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.

What are the causes of high cholesterol?

Various factors can raise cholesterol over a period of time. This includes lifestyle factors like an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, being overweight or obese (body mass index of 25 or higher), smoking and even genetic conditions. Health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and a family history of high cholesterol can also increase the risk of high cholesterol. Some people have a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia that causes high blood cholesterol. 

What can suddenly increase cholesterol levels?

Some other risk factors that can lead to an increase in cholesterol more quickly are listed below.

High caffeine consumption

Caffeine can cause spikes in cholesterol and blood pressure. Studies have shown that drinking four or more coffees per day can lead to an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels. Notably, espresso-based drinks are more harmful than instant coffee. 

Cigarette Smoking

Smoking is a known risk factor for coronary heart disease and can cause a rapid increase in cholesterol levels. The nicotine in cigarettes is believed to release chemicals in the body that lead to lipolysis (lipid breakdown). This not only increases bad cholesterol (LDL levels) but also decreases good cholesterol (HDL levels).

Medication-induced high cholesterol

Certain medications can affect lipid metabolism or cause weight gain and increase cholesterol. Examples include:

  • Antihypertensive drugs, including beta blockers that used to treat high blood pressure
  • Danazol (a synthetic steroid)
  • Retinoid medications that are used to treat acne and other skin conditions
  • Birth control pills
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Antivirals
  • Interferons

Rapid weight loss

Losing weight quickly by eating a very low-calorie diet can lead to a temporary spike in LDL cholesterol. To reduce the risk of a sudden increase in cholesterol, it is best to work with your healthcare provider and develop a plan for slow and steady weight loss at a healthy rate.


Hormonal changes during pregnancy can lead to a 30-40% increase in cholesterol levels. This is necessary to support the growth of the fetus. However, if cholesterol increases too much during pregnancy, it can harm the mother and baby. If dietary changes are not enough to manage gestational hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol during pregnancy), doctors may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.

Does stress raise cholesterol?

Stress can indeed raise cholesterol levels. Studies have shown psychological stress can lead to both high LDL (bad cholesterol) and high total cholesterol. Experts believe this is because the levels of cortisol hormone spike during periods of stress. High cortisol levels have been linked to high cholesterol levels. Stress management techniques like breathing exercises and meditation can help to lower the risk of high cholesterol related to stress. Moderate-intensity exercise helps boost mental wellness as well.

How to lower cholesterol levels quickly?

Cholesterol-lowering medications like statins and bile acid sequestrants can bring down cholesterol in 2-4 weeks. However, not everybody needs to take medications for high cholesterol. For many people, modifying lifestyle factors is enough. 

Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, achieving a healthy weight, and quitting smoking (if you smoke) can help to normalize your cholesterol numbers over several months and reduce your risk of heart disease

Can one meal affect a cholesterol test?

Eating one meal that is high in saturated fat before your cholesterol test will not typically affect your lipid levels. Changes in blood cholesterol as a consequence of an unhealthy diet typically occur over several months.

How quickly can your cholesterol levels change?

It can take 8-12 weeks for lifestyle changes to positively affect your cholesterol levels. It is worth noting that cholesterol levels can temporarily increase when you first adopt a healthy lifestyle, and your body starts to burn stored fat. That’s why some doctors recommend waiting 8-12 weeks after your weight has stabilized to get accurate blood cholesterol levels. If there is no improvement in your cholesterol numbers after 12 weeks of lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug such as a statin. 


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/index.htm
  2. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5419930/
  4. https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.14814/phy2.14644
  5. https://academic.oup.com/cdn/article/3/Supplement_1/nzz035.P12-057-19/5517312