What Causes Low HDL Cholesterol Levels?

While having low triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (​LDL) cholesterol can have a positive effect on your heart health, having low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol may count against you. That's because HDL is considered "good cholesterol."

HDL plays an interesting role in that it actually removes LDL cholesterol (your "bad" cholesterol) from the walls of your arteries. This may protect your arteries from clogging up and causing conditions like a heart attack or stroke.

In fact, studies have shown that low HDL levels are linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This is especially true if other lipids, such as LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, in your blood are also high. Likewise, research suggests that to a certain extent, high HDL levels are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

It's important to understand that there is no direct causal relationship found between HDL levels and having a heart attack or stroke—hinting that other factors are at play, and a person's HDL level is one piece of the puzzle.

causes of low HDL cholesterol
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Optimal HDL Levels

Optimal HDL levels vary for women and men. Anything over 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) for men is considered optimal, and over 50 mg/dL for women. However, healthcare providers focus less on the actual HDL "number" and more on a person's entire heart health and how their individual HDL level fits into that picture.

An example is a person who is overweight and smokes and is found to have a low HDL on a routine blood test. Instead of prescribing a medication to increase the HDL to a "normal" number, a healthcare provider will focus on smoking cessation counseling, exercise, and weight loss. These measures can all effectively raise the HDL

In fact, you may be surprised to learn that there is no great scientific evidence out there to support the use of medication to raise a person's HDL level.

Causes of Low HDL

There are a number of conditions and lifestyle choices that play a role in lowering HDL levels. While these may not be a factor for you, think about these issues and discuss with your healthcare provider:

  • Excess weight: Having excess weight can cause a number of health conditions, including a decrease in your HDL levels. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can increase these levels and lower your risk of heart disease.
  • Genetic factors: Sometimes, very low HDL cholesterol levels can be inherited. Medical conditions that severely lower HDL levels include Tangier’s disease and familial hypoalphalipoproteinemia.
  • Poor diet: What you eat can also influence your HDL levels. Limiting saturated fats (for example, butter, cream, whole or 2% milk, beef, pork, chicken with skin) and substituting them for monounsaturated fats, found in olives and avocados, and polyunsaturated fat, found in fatty fish, can raise your HDL.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Adding moderate exercise to your daily routine may help increase your HDL levels slightly. The American Heart Association recommends aerobic exercising 40 minutes daily three to four times weekly—examples include swimming, brisk walking, running, bicycling, and dancing.
  • Smoking: The chemicals found in cigarettes can lower your HDL cholesterol. Quitting smoking can help increase your HDL, as well as prevent other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes: Having high blood glucose levels may contribute to lowering HDL cholesterol levels. It can also increase triglyceride and LDL levels. Getting your blood sugar under control may help get your HDL levels back within a healthy range. This can be done by modifying your lifestyle or taking medication to treat it.

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

Frequently Asked Questions

How are cholesterol levels checked?

Cholesterol levels are checked with a test called a lipid profile, which requires a blood draw. Lipid profiles test your HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels. You may have to fast for eight to 12 hours prior to the blood draw to get an accurate test result.

How often should cholesterol levels be checked?

Healthy adults should have a lipid profile test every four to six years, but anyone who has a preexisting medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease, or a family history of high cholesterol, should be tested more frequently. Children and younger adults should have a lipid profile baseline established between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21.

A Word From Verywell

Your HDL level is important, but your healthcare provider will likely focus less on the precise number and more on what it means. They will interpret your HDL level within the context of your risk factors for heart disease like your family history, weight, activity level, whether you smoke, and whether you have other medical conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

If your healthcare provider tells you your HDL level is low, try not to be discouraged. Instead, focus your energy on getting healthier, whether that means losing weight if you are overweight or obese, stopping smoking, or getting outside for a jog.

If you need help meeting these lifestyle goals, that's OK. Talk with your healthcare provider—it may be a good time to see a nutritionist or even start a weight loss program.

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Article 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.
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