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HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is often referred to as “good” cholesterol. This is because it absorbs other types of cholesterol and carries them away from your arteries and back to your liver, which eliminates it from your body.

LDL (low-density cholesterol) is referred to as the ”bad“ cholesterol because it can build up on the walls of blood vessels, narrowing the passageways. If a blood clot forms and gets stuck in the narrowed passageway, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

In this article, we’ll look at what HDL cholesterol is, its function in the body, and how to boost your HDL levels.

Cholesterol is a lipid which is a waxy type of fat. Cholesterol is made by your liver, but you can also consume it by eating foods that come from animals. It’s transported throughout your body in your blood.

Cholesterol is needed by your body to:

  • produce vitamin D
  • help form cell membrane layers
  • make certain hormones
  • help the liver make bile for digestion

There are two primary types of cholesterol:

Very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are a third type of cholesterol. They carry triglycerides, which is the fat your body stores up and uses for energy between meals.

HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol because it helps get other types of cholesterol out of your body.

LDL is labeled the “bad” cholesterol because it can build up on your arterial wall and restrict blood flow. This build-up of cholesterol, along with plaque (inflammatory deposits), can result in atherosclerosis, also known as hardening or narrowing of the arteries. Atherosclerosis increases your risk for stroke, heart attack, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Cholesterol is measured through a blood test called a lipid panel. A lipid panel shows:

  • Your total cholesterol
  • LDL levels
  • HDL levels
  • VLDL levels and triglycerides

Normal levels of cholesterol differ based on age and sex. According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), target numbers (based on fasting measurements in milligrams per deciliter) for HDL cholesterol are:

HDL CholesterolMenWomenChildren
Good40 or higher50 or higherGreater than 45
Borderlinen/an/a40–45
High60 or higher60 or higher200 or higher
LowLess than 40Less than 50n/a

There are lifestyle changes you can make to increase your levels of HDL cholesterol, including:

  • Physical activity. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a weekly minimum of 40 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise 3 to 4 times weekly.
  • Diet. Avoid trans fats (certain baked goods, fried foods, some margarines) and limit saturated fats (full-fat dairy, meats).
  • Smoking. Try to stop smoking (tobacco products are known to lower HDL levels and increase LDL levels and triglycerides).
  • Drinking. Avoid or limit alcoholic beverages (up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger).

According to the Mayo Clinic, although there are no drugs to increase HDL levels, there are drugs to lower LDL and triglyceride levels, including:

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), if you’re over 20 years old, you should have your cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. Your doctor may suggest checking it more often, based on previous tests or the presence of certain other conditions.

The AHA does not recommend routine cholesterol screening for those under 20 years old, unless they have a family history of familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). FH is an inherited condition that causes high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol because takes the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) out of your arteries to reduce the chances of stroke, heart attack, and coronary artery disease (CAD).

Talk with a doctor about how often you should have your cholesterol level tested. Your doctor can also provide recommendations on boosting your HDL levels, with diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes.