By now, you probably realize that not all cholesterol in your body is "bad" cholesterol. The type known as high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, actually serves a valuable role, gathering up harmful LDL cholesterol particles and carrying them back to the liver, where they get broken down and removed.
Read more: What's a Healthy Cholesterol Ratio?
The Value of HDL
This is why, according to the Mayo Clinic, a good cholesterol management plan should involve not only lowering bad LDL cholesterol levels, but also ideally raising HDL levels to a desired range.
For both men and women, having 60 milligrams of per deciliter or above of HDL cholesterol is desirable. For men, less than 40 milligrams per deciliter is considered at risk, while women are at risk with less than 50.
What Causes HDL to Drop?
The Cleveland Clinic notes that several lifestyle factors can have a big effect on your body's levels of HDL cholesterol, including the following:
- Diet. Eating a diet that is low in fruits and vegetables and high in trans fats, processed meats and refined carbohydrates like sugar all negatively affect HDL levels.
- Exercise. A sedentary lifestyle where you don't get enough exercise also has a negative effect.
- Obesity. Having high body weight is another factor that seems to negatively affect HDL levels.
- Smoking. Smoking has also been shown to decrease HDL levels.
- High blood sugar and blood pressure.
Poor management of both of these cardiovascular issues can also pose problems
for your HDL cholesterol levels.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that certain medications, such as those containing testosterone or anabolic steroids, can lower HDL levels.
Metabolic Syndrome and HDL
Kunal Karmali, MD, a cardiologist with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago notes that a common connection ties together many of the lifestyle factors that lead to a drop in HDL cholesterol levels.
"Factors like being overweight, eating an unhealthy diet, being physically inactive and a diet high in sugar are lumped together as metabolic syndrome," he says. "All of those factors mentioned can contribute to decreasing HDL." The Mayo Clinic adds that high blood sugar and high blood pressure are other telltale signs of metabolic syndrome.
How to Raise HDL
If there's any good news about HDL cholesterol, it's that the same lifestyle factors that lead to its drop can also be flipped to increase HDL to a desired level. "The way to improve is to unwind those numbers by maintaining a healthy weight, physical activity level and not smoking," says Dr. Karmali. "Having a healthier lifestyle can improve your HDL."
When it comes to diet, for example, the Cleveland Clinic notes that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts is best for HDL levels. Focusing on protein from fish and other lean sources is also important.
One popular diet type that's been shown to increase HDL levels is known as a Mediterranean-style diet. "By far the best way to increase HDL is to decrease your triglycerides," says Patrick Fratellone, MD, an integrative cardiologist in New York City. "This means the less carbohydrates you consume, the better your HDL will get."
Read more: How to Raise Good Cholesterol Numbers
As far as exercise goes, the Cleveland Clinic recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. "Exercise increases HDL," says Dr. Fratellone. "Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day can decrease cardiovascular mortality by 38 percent."
Once your diet and exercise routine are worked out, then issues such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and obesity tend to improve. And that just leaves smoking, which you should quit for more reasons than just raising your HDL, if you haven't quit already.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that although some medications designed to raise HDL levels have been studied, they didn't decrease the risk for heart attacks. Lifestyle changes still are the best way to boost your HDL levels.