It is pretty much common knowledge that having a high level of cholesterol in your blood can lead to stokes or heart attacks. So, some folks have to watch their diet and others take medicines like the “statins” reduce their blood cholesterol. Something that is not generally known is that a very low cholesterol can be associated with an increased risk of suicide. How is low cholesterol related to suicide risk and is there anything that a person can do about this?
Markers for Suicide Risk
The incidence of suicide among veterans is at least fifty percent higher than in the non-veteran population. Much effort has gone into identifying and treating the various risk factors for suicide such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorders. The search for factors associated with or likely to cause suicide has turned up some surprising results. One is that lipids (cholesterol) can be biological markers for suicide. When levels of cholesterol and other lipoproteins are extremely low, a person’s risk for suicide goes up. What is this all about?
How Low Cholesterol Ends Up Causing a Higher Suicide Risk
What researchers have found is not that simply having low cholesterol in the blood directly leads to suicide risk. Rather it has to do with the role of cholesterol and other lipids in constructing and maintaining cell membranes. Cholesterol is the primary sterol component in all animal cell membranes making up about 30 of the membrane lipid bilayer. Cholesterol is essential for maintaining integrity of cell membranes, their fluidity, and signal transmission such as with nerve cells. This is a mouthful but what it means is that cholesterol is essential for the normal functioning of human cells. It follows that if cholesterol levels are low that will affect the integrity and function of human cells. How does that play out in the physical world that we experience?
Low Cholesterol and Mental Illness
Researchers have looked at the relationship between cholesterol and psychopathology or mental illness. Specifically extremely low cholesterol levels are associated with violent, criminal, and antisocial behavior. People with very low cholesterol levels are more likely than others to be aggressive and angry and to engage in impulsive behaviors including ending their lives violently. Those who have reviewed this body of information remind us that cholesterol does not do any of this directly. Rather its absence results in impaired cell membranes and when these cell membranes are in the human brain they end up impairing thinking and judgement.
What to Do About Low Cholesterol and Mental Health Problems
Taking fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K is one way to try to increase the level of cholesterol in the body. Simply eating more cholesterol rich fools like beef, eggs, and butter can help as well. To the extent that a person has an extremely low cholesterol and also suffers from the known effects of this condition such as being impulsive, violent, or depressed, it is important that they not compulsively follow the general wisdom that avoiding cholesterol in the diet is a good thing to do. Unfortunately, there is no magic medicine to raise an extremely low cholesterol unlike with a high cholesterol where the “statins” have worked to reduce the incidence of heart and blood vessel disease. That leaves other methods of dealing with mental illnesses as the only viable option in reducing suicide risk.
Low Cholesterol as a Marker for Potential Mental Health Problems
Where all of this leaves us is with the knowledge that if a person has an extremely low cholesterol level that they are at a higher risk of suicide due to a variety of mental health issues. Thus, the low cholesterol should alert caregivers as to the need to screen for mental health issues such as depression, impulsiveness, or antisocial and violent tendencies. Then these issues need to be dealt with accordingly. Something that may be useful going forward would be to screen for low cholesterol levels and find out the degree to which it may affect various treatments like using standard antidepressants or psychedelic medicines for treating PTSD, depression, or substance abuse disorders. That would be a simple addition to any study and potentially very useful.