Understanding HDL Cholesterol and How to Improve Your Levels

Protecting your heart through cholesterol control involves much more than just getting your levels low.  A low HDL cholesterol level, in fact, isn’t a good thing while LDL cholesterol has to be lowered. HDL is also one of the predictors of coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association states that 6.5 percent of American women and 24 percent of men have HDL cholesterol values that are lower than what the threshold for diagnosing heart disease risk is.  You can, fortunately, make a number of dietary and lifestyle changes to raise your HDL level.

What is HDL Cholesterol?

HDL is short for High-Density Lipoprotein, more commonly referred to as HDL-C or HDL cholesterol. Although HDL is frequently called “good” cholesterol, technically it isn’t cholesterol.  It’s, in fact, a protein that is synthesized by the body to transport cholesterol.  This protein gets attached to cholesterol and carries it in the blood into the liver. This is where cholesterol gets removed out of the body. Your heart is protected by HDL. It prevents excess cholesterol from building up inside your bloodstream. Approximately 25 to 33 percent of the total of cholesterol inside the blood is HDL cholesterol. The good news is high HDL levels can help to prevent heart attacks and heart disease.

What are the Ideal Levels?

The American Heart Association states that for men, levels of HDL need to be more than 40 milligrams per deciliter of blood and for women more than 50 milligrams per deciliter. If the levels are below those numbers, it raises the risk of getting a heart attack. A level that is higher than 60 mg/dL is associated with lower risk for heart disease.

What Causes Low HDL Levels?


A low HDL level can have a genetic source. Current Opinion in Cardiology published an article that states that as high as 20 percent of individuals that have low HDL cholesterol levels have a gene mutation that is quite rare and interferes with the synthesis of HDL. Mutations of common ABCA1 gene variants might contribute to the general population having low HDL levels. Having a genetic disposition towards low HDL cholesterol is one of the uncontrollable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Therefore, for those people who are predisposed to having lower HDL cholesterol level, lifestyle changes might be more important.

Inadequate medication, lifestyle, and diet

Studies have shown excess weight or obesity is associated with having lower HDL numbers. Other factors that contribute to lower HDL levels include consuming trans-fats, consuming an insufficient amount of foods rich in Omega-3 and not enough physical activity. Another possible cause is smoking. Smoking is listed by the National Institute of Health (NIH) as one of the causes of low HDL, but the institute did not give a minimum number of cigarettes per day involved or how long an individual has to smoke to get impacted. Also, the NIH doesn’t state the impact of second-hand smoke on HDL. There are also drugs that can drastically induce low HDL levels. These include prescription testosterone as well as other types of male sex hormones or androgens. The same effect can be triggered by progestin, high dose of zinc supplements, anabolic steroids, and beta blockers.

How to Increase Your HDL

Limit fat intake

A low-fat diet will be beneficial to your cholesterol levels. A simple way of achieving that is by limiting animal foods intake in your daily diet, for instance: dairy, eggs, and meats. Apart from saturated fats, there are also trans fats. They have to be removed completely from your diet as their impact on HDL levels is worst.

Consume Omega-3 rich fish

Eat Salmon to improve your HDL Cholesterol levelsFatty fish such as salmon, sea bass, Spanish mackerel, herring, and sardines are loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids, a critical nutrient which intake helps raise HDL levels and also lower LDL at the same time. The AHA advises fatty fish consumption a couple of times or more weekly. It is recommended to seek the advice of your health care provider about taking fish oil supplement in case of allergic reactions to fish. Vegetarians have also some options as walnuts, leafy green vegetables, soy foods and ground flax seed although featuring much smaller quantities of Omega-3.

Eat Resveratrol-rich fruits

There are some fruits that might increase HDL cholesterol levels.  Fruits that have dark purple or red skins are rich in Resveratrol, which is a polyphenol compound that has been shown to increase HDL levels considerably. The best fruit choices with high levels of Resveratrol include berries, apples, grapes and cherries.

Exercise on a regular basis

The best way of improving your HDL score apart from healthy nutrition is through exercising. Performing 30 minutes sessions of daily aerobic exercises such as bicycling, swimming, jogging and walking, can be helpful in increasing HDL. Health and fitness researchers have established that exercise’s intensity is less important than its duration. It is, therefore, advisable to have a full but moderate workout session instead of short intense workouts.

Lose weight

Losing excess weight can help increase HDL numbers as much as 0.3 mg/dl per 2 lbs of weight loss. Moreover, you will be lowering the risks of developing many health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Stop smoking

Studies from the University of Florida in 2012 have revealed that cigarette smoke contains a harmful chemical that inhibits HDL in the body. Thus, when you stop smoking, you will not only benefit of a reduced risk for lung cancer and heart disease, but also of an improvement of your HDL levels. Begin by decreasing gradually the number of cigarettes you smoke to enable the body to adapt the nicotine reduction until eliminating smoking completely for an improvement of your “good” cholesterol.

Drink but moderately

A moderate alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on HDL levels. Amongst the alcoholic drinks, red wine is the most beneficial towards HDL. One or most two drinks daily is the adequate dose to improve HDL levels. Exceeding this dose will do no good and can result in serious health conditions and even heart failure.