Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
You probably know that cholesterol levels are an important measure of your health. In particular, lowering cholesterol can keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. So it might surprise you to hear that there's a "good" kind of cholesterol.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is often nicknamed “good cholesterol.” That's because having high HDL cholesterol levels can actually help reduce your overall cholesterol levels.
So what is HDL cholesterol, and why is it named "good?” And what do you need to do to increase your HDL cholesterol levels?
Let's find out.
What is HDL cholesterol?
Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function normally.To transport that cholesterol to where it's needed, your liver produces molecules called lipoproteins. 1 These particles are made up of fats and proteins that bind to cholesterol so your blood can transport it around your body. 1
Your liver produces 2 main types of lipoprotein: 2
- High-density lipoproteins (HDLs), or "good cholesterol"
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), or "bad cholesterol"
HDL is the densest and smallest type of lipoprotein, and it contains the highest amount of protein. 3 But what makes HDL cholesterol "good"?
Why is HDL cholesterol better than LDL cholesterol?
Let's start with a quick cholesterol recap.
When your cholesterol levels get too high, fatty buildups can start to form in the walls of your arteries. 4 Over time, these buildups turn to plaques, which can narrow your arteries and make it difficult for blood to flow through. 5
This can increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease and other conditions including: 6
- Heart attack
- Chronic kidney disease
Now, on to HDL cholesterol. This "good cholesterol" gets its name because: 7 8
- It transports LDL cholesterol, the primary driver of fatty buildups, back to the liver, where it's removed from your body.
- It can have an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting blood vessels from LDL cholesterol.
- It can remove existing plaques from artery walls.
- It has antioxidant effects, which protect chemical messengers and cells in the body.
Your HDL cholesterol level provides an important indicator for the health of your cardiovascular system. 9
What is the normal HDL cholesterol range?
A healthy HDL cholesterol range is 40 mg per deciliter of blood and higher for men and more than or equal to 50 mg/dL for women. 10
If HDL cholesterol levels go below 50 mg per deciliter of blood for women and 40 mg per deciliter for men, you are 'at risk'.
You can determine your HDL cholesterol levels by getting a lipid profile test at your GP. Your doctor will either take a blood sample or do a prick test and carry out a few measurements. These are: 11
- Total cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol
After taking a lipid profile test, your GP can use the information to carry out a 10-year atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk assessment. 10 This will allow them to calculate the risk of you developing heart problems within the next 10 years.
How to increase HDL cholesterol?
You can increase your HDL cholesterol levels by making healthy lifestyle choices. 12
These can include: 12
- Eating a balanced diet
- Losing weight
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding or quitting smoking
- Reducing alcohol consumption
There are also medications your doctor can prescribe if your HDL cholesterol is low. 12
Not all cholesterol is bad. Having healthy, high HDL cholesterol levels is extremely important for your health.
So remember to stay active, eat healthy foods, and make sure you regularly check your blood cholesterol levels.
Frequently asked questions
Q: When should I test my HDL cholesterol?
A: You should check your HDL levels as part of your lipid profile with a cholesterol level test every 4 to 6 years.
Q: How can I naturally increase my HDL cholesterol levels?
A: Lifestyle changes are the main way to naturally increase HDL cholesterol levels. If lifestyle changes aren't enough, your doctor may prescribe medications to help.
Q: What impact does my diet have on HDL cholesterol?
A: Having a balanced diet is one of the main ways to maintain stable HDL levels. It also contributes to lowering LDL cholesterol, the "bad" kind.
Q: Can a high HDL cholesterol level make up for high LDL cholesterol?
A: Unfortunately, we do not have the answer to this. More research is necessary to tell for sure. Either way, it's essential to maintain healthy, low LDL levels.
Feingold, KR (2021). Introduction to Lipids and Lipoproteins.. Accessed March 16, 2022
CDC (2021). Cholesterol Myths and Facts. Accessed March 16, 2022
Heart UK. HDL Cholesterol. Accessed March 16, 2022
British Heart Foundation. High Cholesterol - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments. Accessed March 15, 2022
Heart.org (2020). Atherosclerosis. Accessed March 15, 2022
NIH (2022). What is Atherosclerosis?. Accessed March 15, 2022
American Heart Association. Understanding & Managing Cholesterol. Accessed March 15, 2022
Mineo C, et al. (2012). Novel Biological Functions of High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol. Accessed March 15, 2022
Ben-Aicha S, et al. (2020). Advances in HDL: Much More than Lipid Transporters. Accessed March 15, 2022
Lee Y, et al. Cholesterol Levels. Accessed March 15, 2022
CDC (2020). Getting Your Cholesterol Checked. Accessed March 15, 2022
NHLBI. Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC). Accessed March 15, 2022