It’s harder to increase HDL or "good" cholesterol than it is to lower LDL or total cholesterol. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the variation in HDL from person to person is due to genetic factors. But the following steps have been shown to boost HDL—and they are worth taking because they also lower total cholesterol and help protect the heart in many ways beyond their effect on HDL.
Why is one form of cholesterol considered good and another bad? There are actually as many as 18 kinds of cholesterol, but to save confusion, doctors divide them into two categories: LDL (bad) and HDL (good). Your liver manufactures most of your cholesterol, and small amounts of it go toward a variety of healthy purposes, including creating hormones that help turn food and exercise into muscle. Serving as cholesterol chauffeurs are fat/protein bunches called lipoproteins, and that’s where the fun begins: Low-density lipoproteins tend to deposit cholesterol on artery walls, where it builds up and eventually interferes with blood flow. But the high-density variety seems to take cholesterol back to the liver, where it can be eliminated from the body.
Niacin (vitamin B3) is believed to block cholesterol production in the body. Although niacin in prescription supplement form appears to be most effective in increasing HDL, it may have side effects such as flushing, itching, and headache, so you may want to consider adding niacin-containing foods to your diet first. Niacin is found in high concentrations in crimini mushrooms, chicken breast, halibut, tomato, romaine lettuce, enriched bread, and cereals.
As a result of all this, doctors don’t just want you to lower your total cholesterol count; they want you to change the ratio as well, so you have more HDL and less LDL. “When we looked at the data, we found that the higher your HDL went, the lower your risk of heart attack,” says cardiologist William Castelli, M.D., former director of the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts. An HDL level of 75 or more seems to convey extra longevity for many people, while a count of 100 or more is so beneficial that it was dubbed the “Methuselah syndrome” by one researcher. HDL less than 35 or so, meanwhile, can carry significant risk of heart disease. Genetics plays a large role in HDL. A few guys have naturally low levels and need to keep their LDL low as well to make up for it. (As Castelli puts it, you don’t need a substance that removes cholesterol from your blood if you don’t have much to begin with.) But there’s plenty that everyone else can do to pump up their HDL. Never one to shirk from a task that doesn’t involve housecleaning, I managed to find two handfuls of ways to turn my “good” numbers into great numbers.
HDL is actually more complex than we once thought. Rather than being a single kind of particle, HDL is is now considered a family of different particles. All HDL contains lipids (fats), cholesterol and proteins (called apolipoproteins), but some types of HDL are spherical while others are shaped like a doughnut. Some HDL types remove bad cholesterol from the blood while other types are indifferent to cholesterol. Or even worse, some HDL transfers cholesterol the wrong way (into LDL and cells) or protects LDL in a way that makes it more harmful to the arteries.
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Tree nuts, such as walnuts, pistachios and pecans, have been shown to lower both total cholesterol and "bad" LDL cholesterol. Nuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber and several vitamins and minerals that are good for heart health. Nuts also contain plant sterols, which are natural compounds that block the cholesterol you eat from entering your bloodstream. While nuts are awesome to eat, don't go crazy. Portion control is still important—there are 163 calories in just 1 ounce of almonds. Add a small handful to oatmeal, top toast with nut butter or make a DIY trail mix with dried fruit and nuts.
Ask for tomato sauce with your pasta if you want to keep your cholesterol under control. Tomatoes are a significant source of a plant compound called lycopene, which reduces levels of LDL cholesterol. Research shows that the body absorbs more lycopene if the tomatoes are processed or cooked, so drink tomato juice and add tomatoes to your minestrone soup as well.
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Large doses of vitamin B3, or niacin, have been found to raise HDL as much as 20 percent and are often prescribed for people with cholesterol problems. But keep in mind that a daily multivitamin contains all the niacin most people need. Supplementing beyond that can have a variety of side effects, including facial flushing, heartburn and even liver damage, so don’t try it without consulting a doctor.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids and all-around delicious, walnuts have also been shown to improve the HDL-to-total cholesterol ratio, according to a study published in the American Diabetes Association’s peer-reviewed journal, Diabetes Care. This ratio is used by physicians to assess overall cardiovascular risk and can provide more information than just one value alone. A desirable ratio is anything below 5:1, but a ratio of 3.5:1 indicates very minimal cardiovascular risk.
Many people don't like to hear it, but regular aerobic exercise (any exercise, such as walking, jogging or bike riding, that raises your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes at a time) may be the most effective way to increase HDL levels. Recent evidence suggests that the duration of exercise, rather than the intensity, is the more important factor in raising HDL cholesterol. But any aerobic exercise helps.
Starting a simple exercise routine is another way to help lower your elevated LDL cholesterol level. And if you compound working out with the dietary tips listed above, you could potentially lower your LDL level by over 37 percent and increase your HDL cholesterol by over 5 percent in just two months. Not to mention the added benefits of losing weight, decreased stress, and higher energy, exercising is an all-around great activity to incorporate into your life. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity, four to five times each week, and you’ll be well on your way.