What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that's found in all the cells in your body. Your liver makes cholesterol, and it is also in some foods, such as meat and dairy products. Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. But having too much cholesterol in your blood raises your risk of coronary artery disease.
What are HDL and LDL?
There are two main types of cholesterol: HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol:
- HDL stands for high-density lipoproteins. It is called the "good" cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver then removes the cholesterol from your body.
- LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins. It is called the "bad" cholesterol because a high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.
How do I know what my HDL level is?
A blood test called a lipoprotein panel can measure your cholesterol levels. The test tells you what your total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels are. Triglycerides are not a type of cholesterol; they are a different type of fat found in the blood.
If you are age 20 or older, you should have your cholesterol measured at least once every five years.
What should my HDL level be?
With HDL cholesterol, higher numbers are better, because a high HDL level can lower your risk for coronary artery disease and stroke:
HDL (Good) Cholesterol Level
HDL Cholesterol Category
|60 mg/dL and higher||Considered protective against heart disease|
|40-59 mg/dL||The higher, the better|
|Less than 40 mg/dL||A major risk factor for heart disease|
How can I raise my HDL level?
If your HDL level is too low, lifestyle changes may help. These changes may also help prevent other diseases, and make you feel better overall:
- Eat a healthy diet. To raise your HDL level, you need to eat good fats instead of bad fats. This means limiting saturated fats, which include full-fat milk and cheese, high-fat meats like sausage and bacon, and foods made with butter, lard, and shortening. You should also avoid trans fats, which may be in some margarines, fried foods, and processed foods like baked goods. Instead, eat unsaturated fats, which are found in avocado, vegetable oils like olive oil, and nuts. Limit carbohydrates, especially sugar. Also try to eat more foods naturally high in fiber, such as oatmeal and beans.
- Stay at a healthy weight. You can boost your HDL level by losing weight, especially if you have lots of fat around your waist.
- Exercise. Getting regular exercise can raise your HDL level, as well as lower your LDL. You should try to do 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise on most, if not all, days.
- Avoid cigarettes. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can lower your HDL level. If you are a smoker, ask your health care provider for help in finding the best way for you to quit. You should also try to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Limit alcohol. Moderate alcohol may lower your HDL level, although more studies are needed to confirm that. What we do know is that too much alcohol can make you gain weight, and that lowers your HDL level.
Some cholesterol medicines, including certain statins, can raise your HDL level, in addition to lowering your LDL level. Health care providers don't usually prescribe medicines only to raise HDL. But if you have a low HDL and high LDL level, you might need medicine.
What else can affect my HDL level?
Taking certain medicines can lower HDL levels in some people. They include
- Beta blockers, a type of blood pressure medicine
- Anabolic steroids, including testosterone, a male hormone
- Progestins, which are female hormones that are in some birth control pills and Hormone replacement therapy
- Benzodiazepines, sedatives that are often used for anxiety and insomnia
If you are taking one of these and you have a very low HDL level, ask your provider if you should continue to take them.
Diabetes can also lower your HDL level, so that gives you another reason to manage your diabetes.