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Giving HDLs a boost

If your doctor told you to take a pill that raised your cholesterol, you might think twice about it. After all, high cholesterol is a bad thing … isn’t it? Well, yes and no. While there’s no question that high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol are bad for you, high levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol actually may be one of your strongest heart-health allies.

That’s why some doctors are now studying ways to raise HDL levels instead of focusing solely on lowering LDL levels.

The good and the bad

LDL cholesterol is bad because it builds up on artery walls, obstructing blood flow. HDL is good because it sweeps LDL cholesterol from artery walls.

Unfortunately, many Americans have HDL levels low enough to put a person at risk for heart disease. A desirable HDL reading is at least 40 mg/dL (50 mg/dL for women) and an ideal one is at least 60 mg/dL.

Medication’s effect

A Veterans Affairs study of more than 2,500 men found that those who were given a triglyceride-lowering drug called gemfibrozil experienced a 6 percent hike in HDL, which in turn translated to a 22 percent lower risk of heart attack. Some LDL-lowering drugs also appear to have a positive effect on HDL: Nicotinic acid has been shown to raise HDL levels by as much as 35 percent; fenofibrate by as much as 15 percent.

Lifestyle changes

Nondrug ways to kick start your good cholesterol levels include:

  • Exercise. Regular physical activity can increase HDL significantly. If you haven’t been physically active in a while, ask your doctor if it’s okay for you to walk, swim or cycle.
  • Diet. Foods found to boost HDL levels include walnuts and fish, particularly fatty ones such as salmon. Moderate drinking (no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and one for women) also can have a positive effect. In addition, foods with a low glycemic index—that is, foods whose carbohydrate content is digested slowly—appear to raise HDL levels. Such foods include soybeans, apples, whole-grain rye bread and oatmeal.
  • Smoking. If simply breathing secondhand smoke can decrease a person’s HDL numbers, imagine what smoking can do! Quitting smoking drastically lowers a person’s risk of heart disease—in part by stimulating HDL production.