What Is HDL Cholesterol?

Often labeled as “good” cholesterol, HDL is a type of lipoprotein particle that removes excess cholesterol and plaque in your arteries.

Medically Reviewed
Illustration of an artery with atherosclerosis plaque LDL and HDL
HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream and artery walls to your liver, where it is broken down then excreted from the body.Everyday Health
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is one of the two kinds of cholesterol found in your blood. Like its “bad” counterpart, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, HDL cholesterol is made of a lipoprotein coat and cholesterol center.

When at a healthy level, HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol from the arteries back to the liver, where the LDL is broken down and either excreted or reprocessed. This reduces your risk of severe heart disease and stroke in the long run.

Learn More About LDL Cholesterol

Together with LDL and triglycerides, HDL cholesterol makes up the three individual components measured in a lipid panel, the blood test that doctors and other primary care providers use to test your cholesterol.

All adults over age 20 should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, as long as their overall risk remains low. After age 40, your healthcare provider will also use a calculator to check your 10-year risk of heart attack or stroke.

Scientists have found increasing evidence that HDL cholesterol helps maintain the inner walls of blood vessels, which can prevent the initial blood vessel damage associated with atherosclerosis, the precursor disease to heart attack or stroke.

In a Swedish study released earlier this year, researchers found that testing the ability of HDL cholesterol to reduce inflammation may help in the calculated estimate of risk for heart disease.

HDL Cholesterol Levels

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following blood levels are considered desirable?for HDL cholesterol, which is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL):

  • At risk is below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women.
  • Desirable is 60 mg/dL or above.

However, people who have extremely high levels of HDL cholesterol (greater than 107 mg/dL) appear to be at higher risk of heart disease, according to a study led by the University of Pennsylvania, which was published in March?2016 in Science. Due to genetic differences, the bodies of people with extremely high HDL cholesterol do not seem to process the individual particles in a typical fashion.

How to Raise Your HDL Cholesterol

If your HDL cholesterol level is below desirable levels, your doctor may recommend lifestyle strategies for raising it, including the following tactics:

Avoid a diet high in saturated and trans fats. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a diet high in saturated fats — which are found in animal products, including full-fat dairy, as well as many processed foods — can raise your LDL and total cholesterol.

Trans fats — sometimes found in fast food and many commercially baked breads, cookies, cakes, chips, crackers, and snack foods — can also lower your HDL cholesterol.

Instead, the AHA recommends a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish, nuts, and nontropical vegetable oils.

Get regular exercise. The AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, preferably split up over several days. If you’re new to a regular exercise routine, low-impact aerobic exercises are a good way to get started.

Exercise has two effects on cholesterol: It raises levels of your body's HDL cholesterol, and it also increases the size of LDL particles, which makes them less likely to form plaque on coronary artery walls.

Keep blood sugar levels in check. For people with diabetes or prediabetes, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar, too. High blood sugar levels can raise LDL cholesterol as well as lower HDL cholesterol and weaken the lining of arteries.

Quit tobacco. Although the habit can be hard to kick, quitting tobacco use can help prevent high cholesterol. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.

Tobacco smoke causes damage to the walls of your blood vessels, making it easier for plaque to build up in them. Smoking also lowers HDL cholesterol levels.

Keep your weight in a healthy range. Having a body mass index of 30 or greater typically correlates with a higher risk of abnormal cholesterol levels.

People who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure. Those with metabolic syndrome also tend to have lower HDL levels, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

Take medication (if prescribed). Although doctors and other primary care providers don’t usually prescribe medication solely to raise HDL cholesterol, people who have both low HDL and high LDL cholesterol might be prescribed statins to both lower LDL and raise HDL.

Learn More About High-Cholesterol-Lowering Medications

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • HDL Cholesterol: How to Boost Your "Good" Cholesterol.?Mayo Clinic. November 10, 2020.
  • Top 5 Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Cholesterol.?Mayo Clinic.
  • Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia).?American Heart Association. November 11, 2020.
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