Raising HDL Cholesterol
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | September 30, 2005

Let’s begin this Newsletter with a question:

What’s more important--to decrease the bad cholesterol (LDL-C) or to raise the good cholesterol (HDL-C)?

The answer? Yes!

Both are probably equally important although some experts would pick one over the other. To complicate matters, there are many things that a person can and should do to lower the bad cholesterol, but raising the HDL cholesterol is more challenging. The goal is to get your HDL-C as high as you can because research has demonstrated that it can reverse plaque build-up in arteries. So the question “How can I raise my HDL cholesterol?” is one of the most common questions we hear at Better Life Unlimited. This topic was recently addressed in the New England Journal of Medicine and rather the re-invent the wheel, this Newsletter is a summary of that article.

For a review of desirable cholesterol levels, please see the Newsletter from February 18, 2003, “Serum Cholesterol & Cardiovascular Disease.” As it relates to HDL-C, low is less than 40 mg/dl (1.03 mmol/l) for men and less than 50 mg/dl (1.3 mmol/L) for women.

A Plan to Naturally Raise HDL Cholesterol
Exercise: The best and most natural way to increase HDL-C is to get regular aerobic exercise. Here’s the catch: the exercise should be challenging; a relaxing stroll may not be enough to raise HDL-C. You don’t have to run marathons, but 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five or more days per week is necessary to increase HDL-C.

Lose Weight: The greater the degree of obesity, the lower the HDL-C. As weight is lost, HDL-C increases at the rate of about 1 mg/dl for every three pounds you lose. The goal should be to get your Body Mass Index as close to 25.0 as possible.

Improve Fat Intake: Lower your intake of saturated fat and increase polyunsaturated fat--especially omega-3 fatty acids. In short, that means reducing fatty meats, deep-fried foods, and high-fat desserts. Eat more foods that are sources of polyunsaturated fat: oils (olive oil and flaxseed oil), nuts (almonds and walnuts), and cold-water fish (salmon and sardines). Many people also benefit from taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement such as fish or flaxseed oil to increase their intake of polyunsaturated fat.

Reduce Refined Carbohydrates: Foods that carry a high glycemic load such as white bread, sugary drinks, pasta, and potatoes can also reduce HDL-C. Replace these with low-glycemic-load versions such as whole-grain breads and pastas, fruits, and non-starchy vegetables.

Alcohol Intake: Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol (one or two drinks per day) has been shown to increase HDL-C. If you don’t drink alcohol or have an alcohol-abuse problem, this is not a solution for you. However, for those of you who do drink, two drinks is the limit--the benefits decrease after that amount.

Quit Smoking: Yet another reason not to smoke cigarettes: cigarette smoking kills HDL-C production. Find a way to quit.

These are the ways to naturally raise your HDL-C levels. Understand that it may take some time--upwards of a year or longer--to get the full benefit.

After that, what should you do if the level hasn’t increased as much as you’d like? Re-evaluate your lifestyle plan with your physician. He or she may recommend medications such as high-dose niacin, statins, or fibrates to raise HDL-C. This is an important time to have your physician be your partner in your healthcare. That’s the better life way.

  1. Ashen, M.D., and Blumenthal, R.S. Low HDL Cholesterol Levels. N Engl J Med 2005; 353:1252-60.
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