We all need to keep LDL (or bad cholesterol) low, but maintaining high levels of HDL, commonly called good cholesterol, is just as important to health and well-being. Here we’ll discuss what HDL cholesterol is, why it’s important to your overall health, and how to help your body maintain healthy levels of it.
About HDL: The Good Cholesterol
Cholesterol, is a waxy, fatty substance produced by the liver to aid in cell function and digestion.. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol throughout the body, delivering it to cells, tissues and organs that require it to perform their normal functions. If there is more cholesterol in the blood than the body needs, the excess can begin to accumulate in blood vessels. This leads to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), a major risk factor for heart disease.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) serve as the cleanup crew. They take excess cholesterol out of the bloodstream and carry it back to the liver to be broken down and eliminated from the body. The more HDL traveling through your bloodstream, the less extra LDL will be causing trouble in your blood vessels.
On the other hand, the less HDL you have, the more LDL will be available to form plaque in your arteries. This is why low levels of good cholesterol are considered a major threat to cardiovascular health.
Maintaining Healthy Good Cholesterol Levels
What is a healthy HDL level? The optimal number for HDL cholesterol is 60 mg/dL or above, which is considered protective against heart disease. On the other hand, levels below 40 mg/dL in men or 50 mg/dL in women are considered a major risk factor for heart disease.
Once you know how your HDL numbers stack up, there are things you can do to maintain a healthy level or improve levels that are borderline or low, including:
- Stay smoke-free: Tobacco smoke lowers HDL cholesterol, so avoid smoking as well as second-hand exposure.
- Exercise: A sedentary lifestyle lowers HDL cholesterol levels. Make sure to get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily. This can be walking, jogging, dancing, bike riding, or most anything else that raises your heart rate.
- Weight control: Being overweight can lead to falling HDL cholesterol levels, so maintaining a healthy body weight helps maintain healthy levels of good cholesterol.
- Be careful about fat: Limit intake of all fats to between 25%-35% of your total daily calories, saturated fats to no more than 7 percent, and avoid trans fats altogether. Also, making sure that some of your daily fat comes from foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and seeds, can help support healthy good cholesterol levels or raise low ones.
- Load up on whole grains, fruits and vegetables: These foods provide the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other essential nutrients your body needs to maintain healthy HDL and LDL cholesterol levels.
As you can see, maintaining healthy good cholesterol levels is about making healthy lifestyle choices – including regular cholesterol screening.
According to the National Institutes of Health, cholesterol should be tested at least once every five years. This can help catch unhealthy changes in your levels before they become a risk to heart health.
If you have never had a cholesterol screening, talk to your doctor.