HDL cholesterol: How to boost your 'good' cholesterol

Your cholesterol levels are an important measure of heart health. For HDL cholesterol, also known as your "good" cholesterol, the higher the better. Here's how to boost your HDL. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Although your doctor may have told you to lower your total cholesterol, it's important to raise your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is known as the "good" cholesterol. It might sound like a mixed message, but reducing "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol may lower your risk of heart disease.

Understanding HDL cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that's found in all of your cells and has several useful functions, including helping to build your body's cells. It's carried through your bloodstream attached to proteins. These proteins are called lipoproteins.

  • Low-density lipoproteins. These lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout your body, delivering it to different organs and tissues. But if your body has more cholesterol than it needs, the excess keeps circulating in your blood. Over time, circulating LDL cholesterol can enter your blood vessel walls and start to build up under the vessel lining. Deposits of LDL cholesterol particles within the vessel walls are called plaques, and they begin to narrow your blood vessels. Eventually, plaques can narrow the vessels to the point of blocking blood flow, causing coronary artery disease. This is why LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol.
  • High-density lipoproteins. These lipoproteins are often referred to as HDL, or "good," cholesterol. They act as cholesterol scavengers, picking up excess cholesterol in your blood and taking it back to your liver where it's broken down. The higher your HDL level, the less "bad" cholesterol you'll have in your blood.

Just lowering your LDL cholesterol might not be enough for people at high risk of heart disease. Increasing HDL cholesterol also can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Although higher levels of HDL can be helpful in reducing your risk of having a heart attack, researchers caution that you should also consider other risk factors for developing heart disease. It's possible that HDL may not be as helpful for some people as others based on genetics, the size of the HDL particles and other proteins in your blood. Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about how increasing your HDL cholesterol might affect you.

Set your target HDL cholesterol level

Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood or millimoles (mmol) per liter (L). When it comes to HDL cholesterol, aim for a higher number.

 At riskDesirable
Men Less than 40 mg/dL (1.0 mmol/L) 60 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) or above
Women Less than 50 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L) 60 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) or above

If your HDL cholesterol level falls between the at-risk and desirable levels, you should keep trying to increase your HDL level to reduce your risk of heart disease.

If you don't know your HDL level, ask your doctor for a baseline cholesterol test. If your HDL value isn't within a desirable range, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to boost your HDL cholesterol.

Nov. 09, 2012 See more In-depth