What Is HDL Cholesterol?

High-density lipoprotein or HDL is a type of cholesterol that is considered good.

HDL helps remove the bad cholesterol called low-density lipoprotein or LDL from your blood. Having too much LDL cholesterol can lead to health problems, but raising HDL may lower the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Foods with healthy fats

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How HDL Cholesterol Affects Your Health

Your body needs cholesterol to function normally and make:

  • Hormones
  • Vitamins
  • Cells

Although your liver can make all the cholesterol, you also get cholesterol from dietary sources. Foods made from animal sources—such as meat and dairy—have high levels of cholesterol.

Having too much bad cholesterol in your blood may cause fatty deposits (plaque) to form inside your blood vessels. The plaque can cause the blood vessels to become narrow and blocked over time. This may lead to cardiovascular disease.

A healthy level of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Since HDL removes bad cholesterol, it may prevent plaque from forming in the blood vessels. HDL can have a positive impact on your health and prevent health problems like a stroke or heart attack.

What Are Healthy Levels of HDL Cholesterol?

Your healthcare provider can order a blood test called a lipid or lipoprotein panel to check your cholesterol and see if your HDL is at a healthy level. Higher HDL levels on the test are better. You will get the test results in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Healthy HDL cholesterol levels are:

  • 40mg/dL or higher for men who are 20 years old and older
  • 50mg/dL or higher for women who are 20 years old and older 
  • 45mg/dL or higher for children who are 19 years old and younger

When to Have a Blood Test to Check Cholesterol

Your healthcare provider will determine the screening schedule you need to follow to monitor your cholesterol. You may need to have more frequent blood tests if you are at a high risk of having cardiovascular disease.

In general, you want to follow these guidelines for having a blood test to check cholesterol:

  • At least once if you are between the ages of 9 to 11 
  • Every five years if you are 19 or younger 
  • Every five years if you are 20 or older and have a low risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Every one to two years if you are a man between the ages of 45 to 65 
  • Every one to two years if you are a woman between the ages of 55 to 65
  • Every year if you are over the age of 65 

What Affects HDL Cholesterol Levels?

Different lifestyle factors and medications can affect your HDL cholesterol levels. You should discuss all the medications you take, including over-the-counter products, with your healthcare provider. Then, work on a plan with your healthcare provider to change medications or your lifestyle. Do not stop any medication unless your healthcare provider advises you to do it.

Medications that lower HDL levels include: 

  • Benzodiazepine sedatives for anxiety, seizures, and insomnia
  • Beta blockers for controlling blood pressure 
  • Anabolic steroids for low amounts of testosterone
  • Progestins in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy

Other factors that lower HDL levels include:

  • Genetics
  • Being a woman
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Being sedentary
  • Having menopause

How to Raise HDL Cholesterol

There are steps you can take to raise HDL cholesterol. First, talk to your healthcare provider and create a personalized plan to get to healthy numbers. Then, work on making the necessary changes. 

Diet

Your diet is one of the biggest factors you can control. You want to focus on eating foods that raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. This means limiting foods from animal sources and foods high in saturated or trans fats since they are also high in cholesterol.

Limit the following foods and ingredients:

  • Butter
  • Shortening
  • Lard
  • Margarine 
  • Full-fat milk
  • Cheese
  • Sausage
  • Organ meat
  • Bacon 
  • Sugar
  • Fried and processed foods 

Eat more of the following foods and ingredients: 

  • Healthy unsaturated fats
  • Avocado oil 
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Oatmeal
  • Beans 
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables 
  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Whole grains 

Exercise 

Exercise can improve your cardiovascular health and help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. Staying active may raise HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. You should talk to a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine. 

Medications 

Although some medications like beta blockers can lower HDL cholesterol, others can raise it. In general, healthcare providers do not prescribe medications that only raise HDL levels. However, they may prescribe drugs if both your HDL levels are too low and your LDL levels are too high.

Medications that raise HDL include:

  • Statins
  • Fibric acid derivatives (fibrates)
  • Prescription niacin

Other Lifestyle Changes 

Another important lifestyle change is to manage stress since it can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. You want to focus on ways to control stress, so it does not affect your health.

Managing stress may include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Taking breaks
  • Doing hobbies
  • Slowing down

In addition to managing stress, you want to quit smoking and limit alcohol. Smoking and being exposed to secondhand smoke can increase HDL cholesterol. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help quitting smoking or limiting alcohol. There are resources that can help you quit.

A Word From Verywell 

Understanding HDL cholesterol is one of the first steps you can take to improve your overall cholesterol levels. You should talk to a healthcare provider about having regular cholesterol screenings that include measuring HDL.

If your HDL levels are low, discuss ways to increase them with your healthcare provider. You do not want to panic since HDL is part of a bigger cholesterol picture, but you also do not want to ignore test results.

Consider reaching out to friends and family for support during this time. They can help you stay focused while you make lifestyle changes. They can also join you in exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress.

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3 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. MedlinePlus. HDL: the "good" cholesterol. Updated May 20, 2021.

  2. American Heart Association. What your cholesterol levels mean. Updated November 6, 2020.

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Blood cholesterol.