High cholesterol Levels? Boosting HDL cholesterol and Controlling LDL for Better Health
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that your body needs to function properly. But having too much cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. This article provides an in-depth look at cholesterol numbers - what they mean, healthy levels to aim for, and how to improve your cholesterol profile.
- What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?
- Why HDL Cholesterol Matters
- How Does HDL Protect Your Heart?
- What Causes Low HDL Cholesterol?
- Tips to Raise HDL Cholesterol
- Should You Worry About High HDL Cholesterol?
- Key Takeaways on HDL Cholesterol
- Q: What is high cholesterol?
- Q: What are the types of cholesterol?
- Q: How are cholesterol levels measured?
- Q: What are normal LDL cholesterol levels?
- Q: How can I lower my cholesterol?
- Q: What is the risk of high LDL cholesterol?
- Q: What is the role of HDL cholesterol?
- Q: How can I boost my HDL cholesterol?
- Q: Can cholesterol levels be controlled through medication?
- Q: What role does family history play in cholesterol levels?
Cholesterol is carried through your bloodstream on proteins called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol - low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because it contributes to the buildup of plaque in your arteries. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is called "good" cholesterol because it helps remove cholesterol from your bloodstream and protects against cardiovascular disease.
When you get your cholesterol tested, you'll receive a complete cholesterol profile that includes total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. It's important to understand what each of these numbers means and what cholesterol levels put you at risk for heart disease or stroke. Keep reading to learn more.
What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?
The American Heart Association provides the following guidelines for optimal cholesterol levels in adults:
- Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
However, optimal cholesterol levels can vary based on individual risk factors such as family history, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions. Talk to your doctor about your personalized cholesterol goals.
Why HDL Cholesterol Matters
Of all the cholesterol numbers, experts say HDL cholesterol is the most important. HDL cholesterol is considered "good" because it scavenges excess cholesterol from your arteries and takes it back to your liver where it's broken down and removed from your body.
Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. According to a study published in the European Heart Journal, each 1 mg/dL increase in HDL cholesterol is associated with a 2-3% reduction in heart disease risk.
Some key points about HDL cholesterol:
- Low HDL cholesterol (<40 mg/dL for men, <50 mg/dL for women) significantly increases risk for heart disease.
- HDL levels below 35 mg/dL are considered very dangerous.
- Health experts recommend keeping HDL cholesterol above 60 mg/dL for optimal heart health.
- The higher your HDL, the better. but levels above approximately 90 mg/dL may not provide additional benefit.
- Exercise, quitting smoking, and certain medications can help raise HDL cholesterol.
Let's take a deeper look at why HDL matters so much when it comes to heart health.
How Does HDL Protect Your Heart?
HDL cholesterol may help reduce cardiovascular risk through several mechanisms:
1. Removing excess cholesterol from blood vessels
- HDL particles collect cholesterol from cells, including within artery walls, and transport it back to the liver for disposal. This helps prevent cholesterol buildup.
2. Reducing inflammation
- HDL has anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation plays a key role in the development of atherosclerosis.
3. Improving endothelial function
- HDL helps improve the function of your endothelium, which is the lining of your blood vessels. Proper endothelial function is important for maintaining vascular health.
4. Preventing LDL cholesterol oxidation
- Oxidized LDL is more likely to accumulate in artery walls. HDL helps protect LDL particles from oxidation.
5. Discouraging blood clots
- HDL helps keep blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots that could block arteries.
Given HDL's protective effects, it's no wonder why high HDL cholesterol correlates to a lower risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.
What Causes Low HDL Cholesterol?
Many factors can cause low HDL cholesterol levels, including:
- High triglyceride levels
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Certain medications like beta-blockers, anabolic steroids, and progestins
For some people, genetics is the primary determinant of HDL cholesterol levels. But for most people, lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and smoking status have the greatest impact.
The good news is that even if low HDL runs in your family, there are many steps you can take to raise your levels and lower your heart disease risk.
Tips to Raise HDL Cholesterol
Raising HDL cholesterol typically requires lifestyle changes like exercise, nutrition modification, and smoking cessation. Here are some of the most effective ways to increase HDL:
Exercise more - All forms of exercise can boost HDL, especially high-intensity interval training and strength training. Shoot for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise.
Lose weight - Losing as little as 5-10 lbs if you're overweight can significantly increase HDL.
Quit smoking - Cigarette smoke lowers HDL while also damaging your arteries. Kicking the habit will raise HDL.
Cut back on carbs - Reducing refined carbohydrates while increasing healthy fats raises HDL.
Choose healthy fats - Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish are HDL-boosting.
Limit alcohol - Moderate alcohol consumption may raise HDL, but too much can be dangerous. 1 drink per day or less is safest.
Take niacin - Prescription niacin supplements can increase HDL by up to 35%. However, niacin can cause side effects and may not reduce cardiac risk.
In some cases, medications like fibrates, statins, or hormone therapy may be prescribed to help increase HDL, but lifestyle strategies should be tried first.
Should You Worry About High HDL Cholesterol?
For most people, having very high HDL cholesterol is rare and not a cause for concern. However, in some situations extremely high HDL over 90 mg/dL may be a sign of a metabolic disorder.
Some of the potential causes of very high HDL include:
- Heavy alcohol use - Consuming excess alcohol can raise HDL but has many detrimental health effects. Moderation is key.
- Liver disease - Conditions like primary biliary cirrhosis can cause high HDL.
- Metabolic syndrome - While uncommon, in some cases metabolic syndrome featuring high triglycerides and insulin resistance is linked to very high HDL.
Unless other symptoms are present, high HDL is not dangerous on its own. But if your HDL is over 80 mg/dL, discuss your case with your doctor. Getting your triglycerides and VLDL cholesterol checked can help identify whether metabolic issues are contributing to your high reading.
The most important thing is to focus on raising your HDL through healthy lifestyle strategies while keeping other cholesterol markers like LDL and triglycerides within healthy target ranges. This comprehensive approach offers the most protection for your heart.
Key Takeaways on HDL Cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol protects your cardiovascular system by scavenging excess cholesterol from your blood vessels. Higher HDL levels equate to lower cardiovascular risk.
- Healthy HDL cholesterol levels are considered 60 mg/dL or higher. Levels under 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women significantly raise heart disease risk.
- Raising HDL typically requires adding exercise, losing excess weight, quitting smoking, reducing refined carbs, and consuming healthy fats. Certain supplements and medications can also help boost HDL.
- Extremely high HDL over 90 mg/dL may indicate an underlying metabolic disorder and warrants investigation. But for most people, higher HDL is better within reason.
- Focus on lifting your low HDL through lifestyle improvements while also properly managing LDL, triglycerides, blood pressure, and other risk factors to keep your heart healthy.
Making changes to increase HDL cholesterol while keeping the rest of your cholesterol profile in check gives you the best protection against cardiovascular disease. Use your cholesterol numbers as motivating factors to improve your daily habits. With time and consistency, you can optimize your cholesterol profile and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Q: What is high cholesterol?
A: High cholesterol refers to the presence of elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is produced in the liver and also obtained from certain foods. High cholesterol levels can increase the risk of heart disease.
Q: What are the types of cholesterol?
A: There are two main types of cholesterol: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL cholesterol is known as "bad" cholesterol because it can build up in the arteries and lead to blockages. HDL cholesterol is considered "good" cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.
Q: How are cholesterol levels measured?
A: Cholesterol levels are typically measured through a blood test called a cholesterol test. This test measures various lipid levels, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and non-HDL cholesterol.
Q: What are normal LDL cholesterol levels?
A: Normal LDL cholesterol levels should ideally be below 100 mg/dL. However, for individuals with a higher risk for heart disease, the target LDL levels may be lower, typically below 70 mg/dL.
Q: How can I lower my cholesterol?
A: There are several lifestyle changes that can help lower cholesterol levels. Eating a healthy diet low in saturated fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important. Regular physical exercise, quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight also play a significant role in lowering cholesterol.
Q: What is the risk of high LDL cholesterol?
A: High LDL cholesterol levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. When LDL cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it forms plaques that can narrow the blood vessels. This can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Q: What is the role of HDL cholesterol?
A: HDL cholesterol, often referred to as "good" cholesterol, helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream. It carries LDL cholesterol back to the liver where it can be processed and removed from the body. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are generally associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
Q: How can I boost my HDL cholesterol?
A: To boost HDL cholesterol, it is recommended to engage in regular physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise. Quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and consuming healthy fats (such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish) can also help increase HDL cholesterol levels.
Q: Can cholesterol levels be controlled through medication?
A: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to lower cholesterol levels, especially if lifestyle changes alone are not sufficient. Statins are a common class of medication used to lower LDL cholesterol levels. It is important to work with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate treatment for high cholesterol.
Q: What role does family history play in cholesterol levels?
A: Family history can influence cholesterol levels. If there is a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, individuals may be more predisposed to developing high cholesterol themselves. It's important to be aware of familial risk factors and take appropriate steps to manage cholesterol levels.