HDL: Is It Possible to Raise Your ‘Good’ Cholesterol?

While LDL threatens your heart, HDL protects it

You mean cholesterol can actually be good for you? The answer is yes, when it’s high-density lipoprotein (HDL). That’s one of two types of cholesterol you’ll find on your lipid panel test results. The other is low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

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“Think of HDL as the good, or ‘helpful,’ cholesterol, and of LDL as the ‘lousy,’ or ‘less desirable’ cholesterol,” says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD.

Why is HDL helpful?

LDL causes plaque build-up, and, over time, can lead to heart attack and stroke. HDL patrols your bloodstream like a friendly cop, rounding up the suspect LDL and sending it to the liver. There, LDL is reprocessed so it can’t do further damage, and recycled.

So it’s critical to keep your LDL low — ideally, under 100. (Your doctor may want to keep it even lower if you’ve had a cardiac event.) You also want to keep your HDL high — ideally, 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood or higher. (The normal range is 40 to 59 milligrams per deciliter.)

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When HDL levels dip below 40 milligrams per deciliter, your risk of heart disease rises.

What can you do to keep HDL high?

“Although medications can increase HDL cholesterol, research has shown that they do not necessarily alter your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Ahmed. “So we focus on LDL cholesterol reduction and recommend lifestyle changes.” These include:

  • A healthy, well-balanced diet. Heart experts recommend a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and low in saturated fat.
  • Regular exercise, such as walking. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (that works out to about half an hour, five days a week).

“Aerobic activities get your heart rate up, and make you breathe hard and break out in a sweat,” says Dr. Ahmed. “I love walking, particularly when it’s fast-paced. It’s easy to do, you can definitely hit that aerobic threshold, and it puts less pressure on your joints than other exercises.”

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Other tips for keeping your HDL levels high include maintaining a healthy weight; drinking moderately, if at all; and quitting smoking.

Start by taking these small steps to change your lifestyle. They’ll help you boost your HDL, making it easier for the “good cop” to do its job.

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