High density lipoproteins, or HDLs, are good for you. They are produced by the liver to carry cholesterol and other lipids (fats) from tissues and organs back to the liver for recycling or degradation. Having high levels of HDL lowers the incidence of atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and heart disease. The current guidelines set forth by the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend that HDL levels should be between 40 and 60 mg/dL.
However, since HDL has been linked to a healthy heart, the higher your HDL levels are, the better. Researchers have caught on to this and are now attempting to design drugs that specifically raise HDL.
Besides taking medication, there are other ways you can boost your HDL levels, including:
Moderate exercise (about 30 minutes five times a week) not only reduces LDL cholesterol, it also can raise HDL cholesterol, too. You don’t have to be a triathelete or have a gym membership to get exercise -- there are many studies that suggest even brisk walking will help to lower your cholesterol levels. However, the more intense aerobic exercises, such as jogging, will raise your HDL levels the best. Current research has shown that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can raise HDL levels by 3 to 6 mg/dL. These results are evident after 24 hours, and can persist up to fifteen days after exercising. If you don’t have the time to commit to a 30-minute workout, don’t sweat it. Some studies have shown that individuals who have divided this time into 15-minute intervals, as opposed to exercising 30 minutes straight, receive the same healthy benefits of exercise.
Smoking can lower HDL levels, in addition to disturbing other aspects of your lipid profile. This appears to affect women more than it does men. For instance, one study examining women and men who smoked found that the HDL levels of women smokers had decreased on an average of 9.9 mg/dlL, whereas men had only a modest decrease of 2.6 mg/dL in their HDL levels. Even if you do not smoke, being exposed to passive smoke can also place you at risk for heart disease and lower HDL levels. In one particular study examining the effects of second hand smoke on the cholesterol levels of children, researchers found that HDL was reduced by almost 12 percent. The good news is that, once you quit smoking, your HDL levels, as well as your general heart health, improve dramatically.
Eat healthy by including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein in your diet. Also be sure to include monounsaturated fats in your diet. These are fats that are beneficial to your heart and include the fats found in seafood, and certain nuts, such as walnuts or almonds. Oils containing monounsaturated fat include olive oil and canola oil. Be sure to avoid saturated fats and trans-fats, since these fats not only lower HDL, but can also raise LDL levels. These fats are commonly found in foods such as cookies, chips, cakes, and fast foods. Following this healthy diet will not only improve HDL levels, but also will help reduce your waistline and prevent other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Moderate consumption of alcohol may also positively impact HDL levels. Current studies have shown HDL levels increase between 9 and 13.1 mg/dL in individuals who drank between one to two drinks. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer or 4 ounces of wine. Additionally, moderate consumption of alcohol has shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by 30 to 50 percent. However, there is a limit on the amount of alcohol you can consume. Current research has shown that more than three drinks per day can actually increase your risk of heart disease. So, therefore, it's recommended that men drink between one to two alcoholic drinks and women drink one alcoholic drink per day to raise HDL levels and reduce their risk for heart disease.
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Slentz CA, Houmard JA, Johnson JL, et al. Inactivity, exercise training and detraining, and plasma lipoproteins. STRRIDE: a randomized, controlled study of exercise intensity and amount. J Appl Physiol. e-pub 2007 Mar 29.