Thanks to powerful cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, driving down low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, has been the primary approach to improving cholesterol levels. But there's more to the story of cholesterol and cardiovascular risk than LDL alone. Another key player is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL are associated with lower cardiovascular risk.
The good news about this good cholesterol is that simple lifestyle changes can help boost HDL, reports the June 2008 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch
HDL removes LDL from artery walls and ferries it to the liver for processing or removal. HDL also fights potentially dangerous inflammation and clot formation.
According to a recent review of research on HDL, there's some evidence that increasing HDL can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke—even without changes in LDL.
Harvard Women's Health Watch suggests several things people can do to nudge up HDL levels. Most of these strategies also improve health in other ways.
- Get aerobic exercise. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise can boost HDL by 5% to 10%. Aim for five 30-minute sessions per week.
- Lose weight if you need to. If you're overweight or obese, you can boost your HDL level by about 1 mg/dL for every seven pounds lost, although any amount of weight loss will help.
- If you smoke, quit. HDL levels rise by as much as 15% to 20% after you quit.
- Eat a healthy diet. Avoid trans fats, which increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol. Avoid highly refined carbohydrates, such as white-flour products.
- Consider medications. Niacin, available over the counter, is the most effective
HDL-raising medication available. Niacin can be strong medicine—work with your clinician if you want to try it.