Certain factors can contribute to a sudden increase in cholesterol, such as stress, diet, and lifestyle habits, including smoking and drinking alcohol. People should ensure they keep their cholesterol at a safe level to avoid health complications.

A woman resting her head on the edge of a bed with her hair spread across itShare on Pinterest
Nicola Suttle/Stocksy

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance in cells. It is important for making hormones, vitamin D, and substances that aid digestion.

High cholesterol can cause heart problems, such as:

There are two different types of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) has positive effects, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) has negative effects.

In this article, we look at what causes a sudden increase in cholesterol levels, other causes of high cholesterol, and the outlook for a person with high cholesterol.

A sudden increase in cholesterol, or cholesterol spike, may happen for some of the following reasons:

Stress

High stress levels are one possible cause of a sudden spike in cholesterol.

When a person experiences stress, their cortisol levels increase significantly.

Cortisol can also trigger the release of extra cholesterol. Therefore, when a person experiences intense stress, this can significantly raise their cholesterol.

A 2017 study suggests psychological stress can increase LDL (bad cholesterol) and decrease HDL (good cholesterol).

Coffee consumption

If a person consumes a lot of caffeine, this can result in a cholesterol spike.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), excessive coffee consumption can pose health risks. It says that about four or five cups of coffee a day for adults is usually a safe amount.

A 2018 study highlights the link between excessive coffee consumption and high cholesterol levels. This may be due to coffee containing diterpenes. Diterpenes are chemical compounds that may raise cholesterol.

Drinking too much coffee in one go can result in high levels of diterpenes in the body. In some cases, this can suddenly raise cholesterol.

Smoking

A 2020 review explains that smoking causes a decrease in HDL cholesterol and raises LDL.

This may occur due to nicotine entering the bloodstream. Nicotine contains a neurotransmitter known as catecholamine, which can increase bad cholesterol in the body.

Smoking a large amount in a short period can cause a sudden cholesterol increase.

Medications

Certain medications may cause a sudden spike in cholesterol levels.

The medications known to increase cholesterol include:

Extreme weight loss

A 2019 article points out three cases where people who lost weight during a medical weight loss program experienced a sudden spike in their LDL, or bad cholesterol, levels.

An increase in cholesterol may occur with weight loss because the cholesterol that usually sits inside fatty tissue enters the bloodstream, causing levels to rise.

The quicker a person loses weight, the more cholesterol may enter the bloodstream.

The cholesterol increase from losing weight is likely only temporary.

Alcohol

If a person drinks heavily in one go, cholesterol levels may rise suddenly.

This is because alcohol releases triglycerides in the body. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. When these levels are too high, for example, after drinking large amounts of alcohol, the liver cannot effectively remove cholesterol from the blood. This can result in increased LDL cholesterol.

One 2017 study looked into the effects of alcohol on HDL cholesterol. The researchers found that heavy alcohol consumption rapidly lowered HDL levels and increased bad cholesterol.

Pregnancy

During pregnancy, hormone levels increase. The increase in these hormones can, in turn, improve cholesterol levels.

A sudden increase in cholesterol during pregnancy is known as gestational hypercholesterolemia.

According to a 2019 study, cholesterol may rise by an estimated 30–40% in pregnant people.

Cholesterol can also increase over time. Some contributing factors for high cholesterol include:

  • Unbalanced diet: When people eat saturated fats, their LDL levels can increase. Trans fats can also raise LDL levels. Additionally, a high-sugar diet may cause an increase in LDL.
  • Lack of physical activity: A 2020 review suggests that low HDL can improve with physical activity. A lack of physical activity causes these good cholesterol levels to decrease.
  • Menopause: A 2019 analysis found cholesterol levels to be higher in women who had experienced menopause than those who had not.
  • Smoking: As well as possibly causing a sudden spike in cholesterol, smoking can also cause a gradual decrease in HDL and an increase in LDL. This is most common in women.
  • Genetics: In some cases, people inherit a predisposition for high cholesterol from a parent. Doctors refer to this as familial hypercholesterolemia. This may be dangerous if a person does not seek treatment because it can lead to premature atherosclerotic heart disease.
  • Some medical conditions: Possible cholesterol-raising medical conditions include:

People may also be at higher risk of high cholesterol as they age.

Some races may also be more likely to develop high cholesterol. For example, African Americans may typically have higher LDL levels than Caucasian people.

A person can manage high cholesterol by eating a balanced diet and partaking in regular physical activity. Sometimes, a person may need medication to help lower their cholesterol.

Untreated high cholesterol can put a person at risk of:

  • cardiac arrest
  • artery diseases
  • coronary heart disease
  • heart attack
  • stroke

There are two kinds of cholesterol: good (HDL) and bad (LDL). When bad cholesterol levels become too high, this can put a person at risk of developing certain health conditions.

Sometimes, cholesterol can increase suddenly. This sudden cholesterol increase is usually temporary.

People can manage their high cholesterol by implementing a balanced diet and exercising regularly.