In a word, High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is "hot." Advances in research have brought more attention to the blood lipid (or fat) we often call "good" cholesterol.
"Good" cholesterol doesn't refer to the cholesterol we eat in food, but rather to the high-density lipoprotein cholesterol circulating in our blood. It's one of the fats measured in the lipid panel blood test doctors perform. And it's the component you want more of, because a higher HDL is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
Experts from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) note that although LDL or "bad" cholesterol has gotten most of the attention, there's growing evidence that HDL plays an important role.
Facts About "Good" Cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol normally makes up 20%-30% of your total blood cholesterol.
- There is evidence that HDL helps protect against the accumulation of plaques (fatty deposits) in the walls of coronary arteries.
- Research suggests that a five-point drop in HDL cholesterol is linked to a 25% increase in heart disease risk.
- In prospective studies -- that is, studies that follow participants for a period of time to watch for events like heart attacks or death from heart disease -- HDL usually proves to be the lipid risk factor most linked to heart disease risk.
- HDL cholesterol levels are thought to be impacted by genetics.
- Women typically have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men. About a third of men and about a fifth of women have HDL levels below 40 mg/dL. Doctors consider levels of less than 40 mg/dL to be low.
Researchers from the Netherlands who analyzed 60 studies concluded that the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL (in which your total cholesterol number is divided by your HDL number) is a better marker for coronary artery disease than LDL measurement alone.
How Does HDL Cholesterol Help Your Heart?
Experts aren't yet sure exactly how HDL cholesterol helps reduce the risk of heart disease. But a few possibilities have emerged.
The NCEP says that high HDL levels appear to protect against the formation of plaques in the artery walls (a process called atherogenesis), according to studies in animals.
Lab studies, meanwhile, suggest that HDL promotes the removal of cholesterol from cells found in plaques, or lesions, in the arteries.
"Recent studies indicate that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of HDL also inhibit atherogenesis," says the NCEP report.
8 Ways to Increase HDL Cholesterol
What many people don't know is that some diet and lifestyle changes may help to increase HDL cholesterol levels, although to a small extent.
Here are some of the contenders:
1. Orange Juice. Drinking three cups of orange juice a day increased HDL levels by 21% over three weeks, according to a small British study (at 330 calories, that's quite a nutritional commitment). This study could be highlighting an effect from high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables. Stay tuned in the years to come.