Ways You Can Increase Your HDL Levels

Buddying up could help lower your cholesterol. SimpleFoto (istockphoto)

High density lipoproteins, or HDLs, are produced by the liver to carry cholesterol and other lipids (fats) from tissues and organs back to the liver for recycling or degradation.

For years, it was thought that raising HDL via medication would be good for us, since high levels of HDL are associated with reduced atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and heart disease. But that thinking recently changed after several large trials showed no reduction in cardiac events, even with the drugs most known to raise HDL, like niacin. New experimental drugs created specifically to raise HDL levels have also shown no benefits on cardiac events.

Fortunately, naturally raising HDL levels still has strong heart-health benefits.

Current guidelines set by the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend that HDL levels should be between 40 and 60 mg/dL. However, since HDL has been linked to a healthy heart, the higher your HDL levels are, the better.

Even if medication doesn't help, there are other ways you can boost your HDL levels.

Moderate Exercise

Moderate exercise not only reduces LDL cholesterol, it can raise HDL cholesterol, too. You don’t have to be a triathelete or have a gym membership to get exercise—there are many studies that suggest even brisk walking will help to lower your cholesterol levels. However, the more intense aerobic exercises, such as jogging, will raise your HDL levels most. Research has shown that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can raise HDL levels by 3 to 6 mg/dL. These results are evident after 24 hours, and can persist up to fifteen days after exercising. If you don’t have the time to commit to a 30-minute workout, don’t sweat it. Just 20 to 40 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, three to four times a week has been shown to improve HDL levels.

Smoking Cessation

Smoking can lower HDL levels, in addition to disturbing other aspects of your lipid profile. This appears to affect women more than it does men. For instance, one study examining women and men who smoked found that the HDL levels of women smokers had decreased on an average of 9.9 mg/dlL, whereas men had only a modest decrease of 2.6 mg/dL in their HDL levels. Even if you do not smoke, being exposed to passive smoke can also place you at risk for heart disease and lower HDL levels. In one particular study examining the effects of secondhand smoke on the cholesterol levels of children, researchers found that HDL was reduced by almost 12 percent. The good news is that once you quit smoking, your HDL levels, as well as your general heart health, improve dramatically.

Eating Healthy

Eat healthy by consuming a predominantly plant-based diet, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lentils, and occasional lean sources of protein. Also be sure to include monounsaturated fats in your diet. These heart-healthy fats include the fats found in seafood and certain nuts, such as walnuts or almonds. Oils containing monounsaturated fat include olive oil and canola oil. Be sure to avoid saturated fats and trans fats (commonly found in cookies, chips, cakes, and fast foods), since these fats not only lower HDL but can also raise LDL levels. Following this healthy diet will not only improve HDL levels but also will help reduce your waistline and prevent other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Alcohol Consumption

Moderate consumption of alcohol may also positively impact HDL levels. Studies have shown HDL levels increase between 9 and 13.1 mg/dL in individuals who drank between one to two drinks. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer or 4 ounces of wine. Additionally, moderate consumption of alcohol has shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by 30 to 50 percent. However, research has shown that more than three drinks per day can actually increase your risk of heart disease. Therefore, it's recommended that men drink between one to two alcoholic drinks and women drink one alcoholic drink per day to raise HDL levels and reduce their risk for heart disease.

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