A UCLA Heart Doctor Says the Change in Seasons Can Affect Your Cholesterol

A leading cardiologist says chillier weather commonly causes an interesting health shift. The explanation makes so much sense.

With the days growing colder and crisper and the leaves starting to change, it’s time to get cozy. The colder seasons are prime for comforting meals, snuggling up on the couch and celebrating the holidays with family. While these experiences are good for the soul, they’re not always so great for our heart health, according to a leading physician.

Dr. Norman E. Lepor, MD, FACC, FAHA, FSCAI, is an attending cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and a professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Lepor explains that for many Americans, bad cholesterol levels can creep up when the temps cool down. The pattern, as he explains it, makes a lot of sense. “[People] don’t feel like going to the gym or they aren’t going outside to jog or exercise,” Dr. Lepor says. “They tend to be consuming more comfort foods and even greater amounts of alcohol.”

While one result is often weight gain (which Dr. Lepor points out can increase the risk of heart-related diseases and type 2 diabetes), the number on the scale actually does not have a strict correlation for cholesterol. Even someone who is naturally thin needs to be mindful of their levels. “You can’t tell by looking at someone if they have coronary vascular disease,” Dr. Lepor says. “I have patients who are thin and are very active, and you know something? They have heart attacks and strokes as well.”

Here’s what to keep in mind this fall.

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Why the seasons matter for cholesterol levels

Many of the foods we consume this time of year tend to be higher in saturated fats, which can increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and clog the arteries. The American Heart Association suggests this creates a higher risk of developing heart disease.

Instead, Dr. Lepor says to focus on following a Mediterranean-style diet, which studies have shown does decrease LDL cholesterol numbers and positively affects cardiovascular health. The Mediterranean diet incorporates more sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, helping to increase HDL “good” cholesterol, which picks up the excess LDL cholesterol in the blood, and takes it to the liver to be removed from the body.

Plus, when the snow lands on the ground, getting out for a walk may not offer quite the same appeal as a warm spring day does. Still, movement is key. According to the Mayo Clinic, being moderately physically active for 30 minutes five times a week can help raise those HDL cholesterol levels. Without movement, the body will have fewer opportunities to remove the LDL cholesterol levels in the system, especially if dietary choices are poor.

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How to test your cholesterol levels easily

As the colder months approach, Dr. Lepor suggests getting a coronary calcium score, which is a method he uses on his patients often to determine their cholesterol levels. “As a cardiologist,” Dr. Lepor says, “[…] my job is to take a patient who is at high risk and mitigate their risk of developing coronary vascular events like a heart attack or stroke. The coronary calcium screen is a very important test [indicating whether] plaque is present, and if plaque is present that means you are at risk.”

Dr. Lepor says it’s never too early to get checked for cholesterol. He typically recommends his patients get regular checks around age 40.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.