Can Your Cholesterol Be Too Low?

While people have been advised about the dangers of high cholesterol and the ways to avoid it, there are indeed situations where your cholesterol may be too low. These have to do with specific aspects of your cholesterol profile, rather than your total cholesterol itself.

Having low levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol increases the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Having too much "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.

However, data suggest an association, but not a causal relationship, between having too little LDL cholesterol and an increased risk of certain cancers, mood disorders, and cardiovascular diseases. This last fact often comes as a surprise to many who have been advised to get their LDL down.

Scientists are still not certain why there appears to be a pretty clear threshold as to when a low LDL becomes problematic. While low HDL is typically associated with high-carbohydrate diets and obesity, there are also genetic and environmental factors that can cause levels to dip.

How to Keep Cholesterol Levels Normal

Laura Porter / Verywell

Understanding Cholesterol

Despite its association with heart disease and obesity, cholesterol is essential to making certain vitamins and hormones, and it also plays a part in digestion and the metabolization of nutrients.

The problem is that most Americans consume way too much through high-fat, high-carb diets. This only adds to the cholesterol that is already naturally produced by the liver.

A low-fat, low-carb diet, by contrast, can help maintain a higher concentration of HDL (which the body uses to excrete LDL from the body) and a lower concentration of LDL (which can clog arteries and form plaque).

HDL and LDL levels can be measured with a simple blood test. For the average American adult, the values, measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), can be interpreted as follows:

  • HDL values of 60 or higher are considered "good," while anything less than 40 is considered "low."
  • LDL values under 100 are considered "optimal," between 100 and 129 are "near optimal," between 130 to 159 are "borderline," and 160 and over are "high."

Other blood tests are used to measure triglycerides, another form of fat, and total cholesterol, the total amount of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in a blood sample.

Dangers of Low HDL

From the standpoint of heart health, the total cholesterol level can never be too low. A problem, however, arises when the HDL drops below 40 mg/dL.

Quite simply, the less HDL there is in your blood, the less LDL you can clear from the body. This, in turn, increase your risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke.

HDL functions as an antioxidant, preventing arterial damage caused by other lipids. If the HDL is low (a condition referred to as hypoalphalipoproteinemia), the loss of the antioxidative effect may not only promote but accelerate plaque formation.

There are many reasons why your HDL may be low. Chief among these is a high-carbohydrate diet. A diet of this sort not only affects your blood sugar, increasing the risk of insulin resistance, but it can also lower your HDL while raising both your LDL and triglycerides by 30% to 40%.

Other factors associated with low HDL levels include:

  • Obesity and metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Elevated triglycerides
  • High-dose thiazide diuretics
  • High-dose beta blockers
  • Severe liver disease
  • End-stage kidney disease
  • Tangier disease, a rare genetic disease associated with a severe, chronic reduction of HDL
  • Sedentary lifestyle

While a low-fat diet is not seen to contribute significantly to chronically low HDL levels, malnutrition can.

Dangers of Low LDL

While it would be fair to assume that a low LDL is a good thing, there are rare circumstances in which chronically low levels may increase your risk of certain diseases.

LDL is a lipoprotein, whose role it is to deliver lipids to every cell in the body. Cholesterol is a critical component of cell membranes, serves as a brain antioxidant, and is used by the body to create the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

Chronically low LDL levels may impair brain and hormonal activity and increase the risk of hypobetalipoproteinemia, a condition linked to depression, cirrhosis, preterm birth, hemorrhagic stroke, and certain types of cancers.

These conditions can affect both sexes but tend to impact females with an LDL below 50 mg/dL. Males, by contrast, are more likely to be affected when their LDL dips below 40 mg/dL.

Similarly, abnormally low LDL levels during pregnancy may trigger hormonal imbalances that contribute, at least in part, to premature birth. Low LDL is also associated with the dysregulation of a protein known as tumor necrotizing factor alpha (TNF-a), the condition of which may be associated with cancer, major depression, and Alzheimer's disease.

With that being said, hypobetalipoproteinemia is often caused by cancer, liver disease, severe malnutrition, and other wasting disorders. As such, no one knows for sure if a chronically low LDL is necessarily the cause or consequence of a disease. It may be in some cases, but not others.

Hypobetalipoproteinemia is also believed associated with mutations of the so-called ANGPTL3 gene, causing abnormal drops in both LDL and HDL. Other likely genetic causes have been identified.


It is often difficult to manage low cholesterol with anything other than diet or lifestyle. There are currently no pharmacological agents able to raise HDL (with the exception of hormone replacement therapy in people who have gone through menopause).

Vitamin supplementation, including high-dose vitamin E (100 to 300 mg/kg/day) and vitamin A (10,000 to 25,000 IUs per day), may help normalize LDL levels.

Beyond that, the best way to get your cholesterol within the normal limits is to:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Embark on a weight-loss plan, if overweight
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts
  • Limit red meat, processed foods, sugar, and processed flour
  • Avoid saturated fat and trans fat
  • Take statin medications if indicated
  • Stop smoking

Aim to keep your total cholesterol within the middle range, somewhere between 150 and 200 mg/dL, and to continue monitoring your levels as directed by your healthcare provider.

Cholesterol Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Current Dietary Recommendations

While the current U.S. dietary guidelines no longer restrict cholesterol to 300 milligrams per day, this shouldn't suggest that the amount we eat is no longer an issue. By and large, foods that are high in cholesterol tend to be high in saturated fat, the latter of which significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

It is important to note that dietary cholesterol is derived only from animal sources, including meat, poultry, shellfish, dairy products, and egg yolks. Of these, foods like eggs and shellfish are high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat, making them an ideal source for the cholesterol our bodies need.

To this end, cholesterol is not a "danger" in and of itself. It is the type of cholesterol-containing foods we eat that influence our risk of CVD and other cardiovascular-related illnesses.

Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Boytsov S, Logunova N, Khomitskaya Y. Suboptimal control of lipid levels: results from the non-interventional Centralized Pan-Russian Survey of the Undertreatment of Hypercholesterolemia II (CEPHEUS II). Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2017;16(1):158. doi:10.1186/s12933-017-0641-4

  2. Bandyopadhyay D, Qureshi A, Ghosh S, et al. Safety and efficacy of extremely low LDL-cholesterol levels and Its prospects in hyperlipidemia management. J Lipids. 2018;2018:8598054. doi:10.1155/2018/8598054

  3. Weissglas-volkov D, Pajukanta P. Genetic causes of high and low serum HDL-cholesterol. J Lipid Res. 2010;51(8):2032-57. doi:10.1194/jlr.R004739

  4. Soliman GA. Dietary cholesterol and the lack of evidence in cardiovascular disease. Nutrients. 2018;10(6). doi:10.3390/nu10060780

  5. Hu T, Yao L, Reynolds K, et al. The effects of a low-carbohydrate diet vs. a low-fat diet on novel cardiovascular risk factors: A randomized controlled trial. Nutrients. 2015;7(9):7978-94. doi:10.3390/nu7095377

  6. Rajagopal G, Suresh V, Sachan A. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol: How high. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2012;16(Suppl 2):S236-8. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.104048

  7. Davies JT, Delfino SF, Feinberg CE, et al. Current and emerging uses of statins in clinical therapeutics: A review. Lipid Insights. 2016;9:13-29. doi:10.4137/LPI.S37450

  8. Singh V, Sharma R, Kumar A, Deedwania P. Low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol: current status and future strategies for management. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2010;6:979-96. doi:10.2147/VHRM.S5685

  9. Huff T, Jialal I. Physiology, cholesterol. In: StatPearls [Internet]. 2019. 

  10. Michos E. Why cholesterol matters for women. Health, Conditions and Diseases [internet].

  11. Bartels Ä, O'donoghue K. Cholesterol in pregnancy: a review of knowns and unknowns. Obstet Med. 2011;4(4):147-51. doi:10.1258/om.2011.110003

  12. Ruan XZ, Varghese Z, Powis SH, Moorhead JF. Dysregulation of LDL receptor under the influence of inflammatory cytokines: a new pathway for foam cell formation. Kidney Int. 2001;60(5):1716-25. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1755.2001.00025.x

  13. Elmehdawi R. Hypolipidemia: a word of caution. Libyan J Med. 2008;3(2):84-90. doi:10.4176/071221

  14. Welty FK. Hypobetalipoproteinemia and abetalipoproteinemia. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2014;25(3):161-8. doi:10.1097/MOL.0000000000000072

  15. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Key elements of healthy eating patterns. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 [internet].

  16. Grundy SM. Cholesterol factors determining blood cholesterol levels. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2003;1237-1243:e2. doi:10.1016/B0-12-227055-X/00226-1

Additional Reading