You mean cholesterol can actually be good for you? The answer is yes, when it’s high-density lipoprotein (HDL). That’s one of two types of cholesterol you’ll find on your lipid panel test results. The other is low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
“Think of HDL as the good, or ‘helpful,’ cholesterol, and of LDL as the ‘lousy,’ or ‘less desirable’ cholesterol,” says cardiovascular medicine specialist Heba Wassif, MD, MPH.
Why is HDL helpful?
LDL causes plaque build-up, and, over time, can lead to heart attack and stroke. HDL works in your bloodstream like a scavenger or cleaner. It removes the bad LDL cholesterol from the blood, taking it to your liver to be excreted.
It’s critical to keep your LDL low — ideally, under 100. (Your doctor may want to keep it even lower if you’ve had a cardiac event.) You also want to keep your HDL high — ideally, 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood or higher. (The normal range is 40 to 59 milligrams per deciliter.)
When HDL levels dip below 40 milligrams per deciliter, your risk of heart disease rises.
What can you do to keep HDL high?
“Although medications can increase HDL cholesterol, research has shown that they do not necessarily alter your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Wassif. “So we focus on LDL cholesterol reduction and recommend lifestyle changes.” The American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association recommends:
A healthy, well-balanced diet. Eat a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and lean vegetable or animal protein and fish. (Limit trans fats, processed meats, refined carbs, and sweetened beverages.)
Regular exercise, such as walking. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity.
Maintain a healthy weight, or lose excess pounds if needed. Besides improving your diet and exercise habits, a comprehensive plan may include lifestyle counseling for stress, sleep hygiene, and other individual challenges you face.
Don’t smoke. If you smoke, individual or social support groups are recommended while trying to quit to increase your chances of success.
Manage your blood sugar. If you have type 2 diabetes, a healthy diet and exercise are crucial, along with any medications your doctor may recommend.
Aim for a blood pressure of < 130/80 mm Hg. Get the proper amount of good-quality sleep, follow a low-sodium diet and meet the recommended exercise guidelines.
Start by taking these small steps to change your lifestyle. They’ll help you boost your HDL, making it easier for your “bloodstream’s cleaner” to do its job.