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How to increase your HDL (good cholesterol)

This blog is the 2nd in a series of 5 on the topic of metabolic syndrome risk factors.

Although the term cholesterol has become associated with bad health, cholesterol is an important part of how our bodies work and vital to our survival. Cholesterol is a waxy substance which is transported around our body in our blood within particles called lipoproteins. Produced in our liver, cholesterol is essential in the production of many hormones, formation of cell membranes, synthesis of vitamin D and synthesis of bile acids. Cholesterol becomes problematic when it is present in excessive amounts in particular forms.

There are various forms of lipoproteins which can be classified as HDL (high-density lipoproteins), LDL (low density lipoproteins), and VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein).

High levels of LDL and VLDL (bad cholesterol) increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by causing fatty plaque build up in arteries (atherosclerosis). 

HDL is good cholesterol which carries away bad cholesterol (LDL and VLDL) from the artery walls. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease which is why we focus methods to increase our HDL levels. The ideal range for blood levels of HDL is above 1.5 mmol/L. Low HDL is linked to CVD, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, certain genetic factors, and liver disease.

LDL cholesterol is a key component in the formation of fatty plaques, hardening and narrowing in arteries (atherosclerosis) - the underlying cause of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) such as stroke, heart failure and heart attacks. The higher the LDL levels the higher the risk of plaque formation.

The ideal level of LDL is below 2.6 mmol/L for most people and below 1.8 mmol/L for people who have coronary artery disease. 

HDL quality frequently determines HDL functionality. HDL particles have typically been known for their athero-protective nature - prevention of atherosclerosis. Certain HDL particles are vital in removing excess cholesterol from artery walls and transporting it to the liver for recycling or excretion thus preventing plaque formation - reverse cholesterol transport (RCT). However not all HDL particles carry out this function with the same efficiency.

Generally, high quantities of HDL cholesterol is associated with good HDL quality and functionality. But this is not always the case. Simply increasing your quantities of HDL will not necessarily lower disease risk and increase longevity expectation. The quality of these HDL particles may be impaired by exposure to stressors such as smoking, infection, pollution and poor food habits (for example consumption of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).

In addition various HDL particles also display an anti-inflammatory function by easing inflammation in artery walls, reduction of blood thrombosis (blood clots),  whilst others help artery walls relax (vasodilate) which is critical to maintaining good blood flow.

These positive attributes and general cardioprotective nature of HDL is why it is included as one of the five key physiologic traits factored into Metabolic Syndrome (MetS) criteria -  MetS being a recognised risk factor for CVD. Low levels of HDL are also recognised as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia in old age.

These are the ways to boost your HDL levels as well as increase the quality of your HDL: 

  • Having a nutritious diet - swapping out refined carbohydrates for whole grains, eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts,  lean protein  - the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet are good examples.

  • Exercising, particularly vigorous exercise, boosts HDL cholesterol.

  • Quitting smoking.

  • Losing excess fat.

  • Omega 3-fatty acids supplementation. 

All of these lifestyle changes are also beneficial to our health on numerous other levels.  If you would like to test your personal risk factors for developing chronic diseases of ageing, find out more about the Longevity Annual health check and download the longevity doctor guide to healthy living.


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