It’s harder to increase HDL or “good” cholesterol than it is to lower LDL or total cholesterol. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the variation in HDL from person to person is due to genetic factors. But the following steps have been shown to boost HDL—and they are worth taking because they also lower total cholesterol and help protect the heart in many ways beyond their effect on HDL.
Why HDL Matters
Population studies have shown that low levels of HDL cholesterol—less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women—increase the overall risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attacks. A person whose HDL level is lower than 35 mg/dL has eight times the risk of CAD as someone with an HDL level of 65 mg/dL. Experts have long thought that boosting HDL levels promotes heart health. But while low HDL is a strong and well-established risk factor for heart disease, the evidence for raising HDL remains uncertain. But experts agree that taking these heart healthy steps are still worthwhile.
Smoking lowers HDL by an average of five points (and increases total cholesterol). Even secondhand smoke lowers HDL.
Aerobic exercise such as running or cycling boosts HDL—but it must be performed regularly and with at least moderate intensity to have a significant effect. The more you exercise, the greater the effect.
Lose Excess Weight
Losing weight via exercise is more likely to help than losing it only by dieting. This is especially important if your body is “apple” shaped, since fat that accumulates around your waist (rather than in the hips and thighs) seems to reduce HDL.
A Daily Drink?
Researchers have found that moderate alcohol consumption—one or two drinks daily—can boost HDL levels, and it may offer other benefits for your heart.
Talk About Meds
Talk with your doctor about medications. Statin drugs usually raise HDL only modestly (about 5 to 10 percent). But other drugs, notably high-dose niacin and fibrates, raise HDL levels significantly.
Watch Your Diet
One drawback of going on a low-fat diet for some people is that it lowers HDL levels. If raising your HDL cholesterol is a primary concern, you should replace carbohydrates in your diet with fats, preferably mono- and polyunsaturated fats. But avoid trans fat, which can lower HDL levels. These steps can lower both total cholesterol and LDL and maintain HDL or boost it slightly, improving the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL.