We hear much about the importance of lowering our cholesterol levels. And it is important to keep our LDL, or bad cholesterol, under control. But increasing our HDL, or good cholesterol, can actually be as important as lowering our LDL.
What are Good and Bad Cholesterol?
HDL and LDL are the lipoproteins which carry cholesterol throughout the blood stream. LDL (known as the bad cholesterol) carries large amounts of cholesterol and triglycerides which stick to the arterial walls and can form blockages. HDL (known as the good cholesterol) carries cholesterol and fats out of the bloodstream to the liver for recycling or removal from the body.
Why is Having a High HDL Cholesterol Level Important?
High levels of HDL seem to protect the heart and blood vessels. The higher your HDL cholesterol, the less LDL cholesterol you’ll have in your blood. If your HDL level is too low, the excess cholesterol in your blood is not being adequately removed and some of it is most likely being deposited along the inner lining of your arteries. HDL cholesterol is also thought to have other protective effects on your heart and blood vessels, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting effects.
What Causes HDL to be Low?
Genetic predisposition, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, elevated triglycerides, diabetes and very high carbohydrate intake can lower HDL.
What Should my HDL be?
According to the American Heart Association, low HDL cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL for men, less than 50 mg/dL for women) puts you at higher risk for heart disease. An HDL level of 60 mg/dL or higher is most desirable and thought to be beneficial in protecting against heart disease. Even if the total cholesterol and LDL are within the normal range, having a low HDL level by itself is a risk factor for developing heart disease.
How do I Raise my HDL?
For some individuals, medication may be necessary. But for many people, the following simple lifestyle changes can greatly improve HDL levels.
- Exercise. Every little bit counts. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to increase HDL the best. And the good news is moderate exercise seems to do as much for HDL levels as intense exercise.
- Control Weight. If you are overweight, lowering your weight will often increase your HDL. Losing weight can also help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as triglyceride levels.
- Avoid Smoking. If you smoke, giving up tobacco will improve your HDL level as well as your general health.
- Eat healthy by choosing the better fats. Minimize saturated and trans fats in your diet. Trans fats tend to increase LDL as well as decrease HDL. These are present in many favorite foods like cakes, pies, crackers and cookies. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” and try to remove these foods from your diet.
- Do eat monounsaturated fats. Try to eat more sources of these good fats, which include olive oil, canola oil, nuts and avocados. Some fats are beneficial in the diet. A diet too low in fats can lower HDL as well as raise triglyceride levels.
- Do eat omega-3 fatty acids. These fats help balance HDL and LDL as well as lower triglycerides. Ground flaxseed, soy foods, certain fatty fish (like salmon, herring, sardines) and walnuts are all good sources of this type of beneficial fat. Increasing your intake of omega-3 is one of the best things you can do for your heart.
- Alcohol (particularly red wine) in moderation has been known to increase HDL level. However, in some people, even light drinking can raise triglycerides. Drinking alcohol also increases such dangers as alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and breast cancer, so talk with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol.
These steps are generally the first line of therapy for raising your HDL level. Take this information to heart! And have your cholesterol levels checked. The American Heart Association recommends all Americans have their total and HDL blood cholesterol levels checked.
American Heart Association