Sooner or later, your doctor will probably talk to you about your cholesterol level. In fact, about one in three Americans will be told they have high cholesterol, and only half of those will get proper treatment.

But not all cholesterol is created equal. Doctors are specifically concerned about high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or the “bad” cholesterol, because it doubles a person’s risk of heart attack.

Your body produces all of the LDL cholesterol it needs, and some people are genetically predisposed to produce more than they need. But most cases of high cholesterol are associated with a genetic predisposition along with a diet rich in red meats and processed foods, staples of a typical American fast food diet.

While having low LDL cholesterol is ideal, having none of it at all is a bad thing. However, since the body produces its own, the body has all of the cholesterol it needs.

When High Cholesterol Is a Good Thing

On the other hand, if you have high levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — the “good” cholesterol — your doctor might be proud of you.

HDL cholesterol helps rid the body of bad cholesterol and keeps it from collecting on the linings of your arteries, which can lead to severe health events such as heart attack or stroke.

How Can Cholesterol Be Good?
Some HDL cholesterol particles lower heart attack and stroke risk. Some HDL also acts as antioxidant, which helps keep the LDL from being attacked by free radicals, which can make LDL more harmful.

A simple blood test can judge three important levels in your blood. This is known as your lipid profile. At optimal levels, it should look like this:

  • LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL. Levels over 190 mg/dL are considered dangerous.
  • HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dL is considered protective, but less than 40 mg/dL is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL.
  • Triglycerides: less than 150 is ideal, but 200 or more is considered high.

As you can see, all of these levels should ideally be low, except for HDL cholesterol.

Having low HDL cholesterol — a condition called hypoalphalipoproteinemia —doesn’t have any physical symptoms. But it can contribute to a host of health problems, including hardening of the arteries and premature cardiovascular disease.

According to the University of California at Davis’ Foods for Health Institute, not only does HDL cholesterol protect against heart disease, but its antioxidant components protect LDL from being oxidized. This is why it is effective at treating sepsis and blood-borne infections.

Synthetic versions of HDL are being researched for other therapeutic effects, especially on its ability to reduce inflammation.

How to Increase Your HDL Cholesterol

If you’re looking to raise your good cholesterol, here are some dos and don’ts that’ll help you get an edge on the battle for long-term heart health:

1. Regular Exercise

Thirty minutes of exercise — the kind that raises your heart rate — five times a week can improve your HDL cholesterol by up to 5 percent. This can be walking, running, swimming, biking, rollerblading, or whatever suits your fancy.

2. No Smoking

As if you needed another reason to quit, smoking decreases HDL cholesterol. Quitting now can boost your good cholesterol by 10 percent, as well as provide a host of other health-friendly benefits.

3. Choose Healthy Fats

Just like there’s good and bad cholesterol, there are good and bad fats. Choosing sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil and avocados, can help raise your HDL cholesterol. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids also contribute to good cholesterol levels. Avoid trans fats, or hydrogenated fats, since these can actually lower your HDL levels.

4. Drink in Moderation

With alcohol, a little is good, but a lot is bad. Moderate alcohol intake — a drink a day or so — has been shown to raise HDL cholesterol, but too much can have other unwanted side effects.

5. Talk to Your Doctor

If you need an extra boost, talk to your doctor about the potential of supplementing your cholesterol therapy with niacin, fibrates, or statins.