Cholesterol levels can be confusing. The usual goal is low cholesterol levels, and people try to avoid consuming too much cholesterol. There are two kinds of cholesterol; if you don't have enough of the good kind, high-density lipoprotein or HDL, you're at a greater risk for heart problems.
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The Bad Cholesterol
There are many risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and obesity. Cholesterol is a molecule that floats through your body on lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are more dangerous than HDL. Elevated LDL cholesterol levels can lead to the risk of heart disease. Your LDL levels should be below 160 milligrams per deciliter of blood, explains an article from the Cleveland Clinic.
That's because too much LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream can cause a buildup of plaque in your arteries, say the experts at the Centers for Disease Control. If enough plaque builds up, it can cut off blood flow to parts of your body. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Lowering LDL Cholesterol
If you have high LDL levels, your doctor can either prescribe natural methods or medications to lower them. Exercise helps, as well as improving your diet by cutting out foods high in saturated fat and eating more fiber. Smoking is another big risk factor for high LDL levels, so you should quit as soon as possible if you're a smoker. Limiting alcohol intake can also help.
The Risk of Low HDL Levels
Often, only LDL cholesterol gets attention as a cardiovascular risk, but HDL cholesterol deserves attention as well. Low levels of HDL can be just as dangerous as high LDL, because it can lead to a buildup of LDL cholesterol. For men, less than 40 milligrams of HDL per deciliter of blood is a risk factor for heart disease. For women that number is even higher, at 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood.
Read more: What Causes HDL Cholesterol to Drop?
HDL Regulates LDL
HDL cholesterol can pull LDL cholesterol out of your arteries and send it back to your liver, according to a 2016 study published in Endocrinology. That means it can prevent high LDL levels.
However, you only need to keep your HDL levels above the minimum for your gender. Beyond that, there isn't much benefit to higher HDL levels. In fact, it can hurt your heart health to have high HDL levels, according to a 2017 study published in Clinical Research in Cardiology.
HDL and Kidney Function
Beyond heart conditions, a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases found that higher HDL levels were related to better kidney function. While it receives attention for heart health, HDL cholesterol seems to benefit the body in more ways than one.
Raising HDL Levels Naturally
If your HDL drops below the recommended number, you should take action to raise it. Your doctor should be able to help you make a plan. Chances are she'll advise you to start with natural options like diet and exercise, because drugs don't seem to be very effective at raising HDL levels, according to an article from Heart Insight.
An article from Berkeley Wellness says that 80 percent of the variance in HDL levels between people is from genetics. That means your HDL levels may be predetermined for the most part. But that doesn't mean you should give up, because there are a few natural remedies you can try.
Work Out to Raise Your HDL
Exercise works wonders for your body and helps with many cardiovascular risk factors, including cholesterol levels. According to a 2016 study published in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, most forms of exercise will help raise your HDL levels and can simultaneously lower your LDL levels.
Aerobic exercise, which can range from a 30-minute walk every day to running 10 miles, is widely accepted as a method for increasing your HDL levels. A 2017 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease showed that exercise at 65 percent of your maximal capacity can raise your HDL levels by almost 3 milligrams per deciliter of blood.
Maximum capacity in this study was measured in VO2 max, which requires expensive equipment to measure. To match that intensity, you can train in a light to moderate heart rate zone, which is around 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to an article from Polar. To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
Weight Loss and HDL
When you work out you burn calories, which can lead to weight loss as long as you don't eat to excess. Losing weight from exercise might be one reason why aerobic exercise raises HDL cholesterol. A typical aerobic workout burns more calories than a typical weightlifting workout, which might explain why many people recommend aerobic exercise to increase HDL cholesterol.
Don't Skip the Weights
While there's less research on resistance training and HDL levels, there's some evidence that it helps as much as aerobic exercise. While you don't burn as many calories during resistance training, building muscle can raise your metabolism, according to an article from the University of New Mexico. A faster metabolism helps you burn calories even when you're not working out.
Eat the Right Fats
Dietary fat is often thought to cause heart problems. You'll actually increase your good cholesterol levels by eating the right foods. If you eat the right kind of fat, it can reduce your risk of heart disease. There are a four types of fat, according to the American Heart Association: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats.
Around 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from dietary fat. Of that, 90 percent of the fat you consume should be unsaturated, which is either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.
Read more: List of Foods That Raise HDL
Vegetable sources of fat like avocado can raise your HDL cholesterol, because they're high in unsaturated fat. Fish is an excellent source of polyunsaturated fat if you're looking for a nonvegetarian option, according to an article from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Watch Out for Trans Fats
It's important to eliminate trans fats from your diet because they can lower HDL levels. Trans fats are man-made and come from heating vegetable oil and adding hydrogen gas to force hydrogen into the fat molecules. Trans fat helps preserve food and is used in products like margarine. Fast food chains often use trans fats to fry their food.
Time to Quit Smoking
Smoking can lower the amount of HDL in your system by 5 milligrams per deciliter, which can put you at increased risk for heart problems. If you smoke, quitting can make a big impact on your HDL levels.
Enjoy Alcohol Responsibly
Drinking in small amounts, such as one or two drinks per day, can actually raise your HDL levels slightly, according to an article from Berkeley Wellness. Be careful not to overdo it, though, because drinking too much is bad for your health.
Is This an Emergency?
- Endocrinology: Low HDL Cholesterol (Hypoalphalipoproteinemia)
- American Journal of Kidney Diseases: HDL Cholesterol, LDL Cholesterol, and Triglycerides as Risk Factors for CKD: A Mendelian Randomization Study
- Cleveland Clinic: Cholesterol Guidelines & Heart Health: Determine Your Risk
- CDC: LDL and HDL Cholesterol: "Bad" and "Good" Cholesterol
- Clinical Research in Cardiology: HDL Cholesterol: Reappraisal of Its Clinical Relevance
- Heart Insight: How Do I Increase My Good Cholesterol?
- Berkeley Wellness: How to Raise HDL Cholesterol
- Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine: The Effects of Exercise Training on the Traditional Lipid Profile and Beyond
- Lipids in Health and Disease: Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Lipids and Lipoproteins
- Polar: Running Heart Rate Zones
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- American Heart Association: Dietary Fat
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Types of Fat
- Berkeley Wellness: Alcohol: What Moderation Means