High cholesterol is known to be a serious health condition—but what about cholesterol that is too low? "A high blood cholesterol level increases your risk of coronary artery disease. Lower cholesterol is usually better, but in rare cases having a very low level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol or a very low total cholesterol level has been associated with some health problems," says Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, MD. Here are five signs your cholesterol might be too low. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Low cholesterol could lead to depression, doctors say. "For the last quarter century, we have been told that cholesterol is dangerous for our health and were advised to avoid it in order to live a healthier life," says James M. Greenblatt, MD. "However, cholesterol is essential in maintaining good mental health. The brain is the most cholesterol-rich organ in the body, and depriving the brain of essential fatty acids and cholesterol can lead to detrimental health problems. Lower levels of cholesterol in the blood are associated with a heightened risk of developing major depressive disorder, as well as an increased risk of death from suicide.
Anxiety could be another symptom that cholesterol levels are too low. "There is now a compelling body of evidence in both men and women that low cholesterol is a potential predictor for depression and anxiety in certain individuals," says Duke psychologist Edward Suarez, PhD. "While we certainly don't advocate that women indulge in high-fat foods, our data do suggest that women with naturally low cholesterol could benefit from raising their cholesterol through healthy dietary measures, like consuming more fish or fish oil."
There is evidence that low cholesterol levels could cause premature births, according to a 2015 study. "Based on our initial findings, it appears that too little cholesterol may be as bad as too much cholesterol during pregnancy, but it is too early to extrapolate these results to the general population," says Max Muenke, MD. "More research is needed to replicate this outcome and to extend it to other groups. For now, the best advice for pregnant women is to follow the guidance of their health care providers when it comes to diet and exercise."
Too-low cholesterol could be linked to an increased risk of stroke. "Strategies to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, like modifying diet or taking statins, are widely used to prevent cardiovascular disease," says Pamela Rist, ScD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "But our large study shows that in women, very low levels may also carry some risks. Women already have a higher risk of stroke than men, in part because they live longer, so clearly defining ways to reduce their risk is important."
Low cholesterol and cancer are linked, but not necessarily in a cause-and-effect way. "Our study affirms that lower total cholesterol may be caused by undiagnosed cancer," says Dr. Demetrius Albanes, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. "In terms of a public health message, we found that higher levels of 'good' cholesterol seem to be protective for all cancers."