HDL cholesterol: How to boost your 'good' cholesterol

Your cholesterol levels are an important measure of heart health. For HDL cholesterol, or "good" cholesterol, higher levels are better.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as the "good" cholesterol because it helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your bloodstream. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

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 lipoprotein. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) can eventually build up within the walls of your blood vessels and narrow the passageways. Sometimes a clot can form and get stuck in the narrowed space, causing a heart attack or stroke. This is why LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol.
  • High-density lipoprotein. This type of lipoprotein is often referred to as "good" cholesterol. HDL picks up excess cholesterol in your blood and take it back to your liver where it's broken down and removed from your body.

If you have high LDL and low HDL cholesterol levels, your doctor will probably focus on lowering your LDL cholesterol first. Medications known as statins — such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor) — are the most common treatment for high LDL cholesterol.

What are optimal levels of HDL?

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, higher numbers are better.

At risk Desirable
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

People who have naturally higher levels of HDL cholesterol are at lower risk of heart attacks and stroke. However, it's less clear whether that same benefit holds true for people who increase their HDL levels with medications.

Interventions known to increase HDL have shown to lower the risk of heart attacks, like exercise, quitting smoking or improving the diet. However, medications that specifically increase HDL have failed to reduce the rate of heart attacks.

June 28, 2016