Cholesterol. It’s in our favorite foods, our bodies make it, and it’s coating the arteries we need to stay alive. That’s why I say that your cholesterol level is one of the top five lifesaving numbers you need to know.
But cholesterol isn’t all bad. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, the “lousy” cholesterol, and HDL, the “healthy” cholesterol. We all need some cholesterol in order for our bodies to manufacture cell membranes. But if we have too much, it accumulates in our blood and sticks to our artery walls, eventually leading to problems like heart attacks and strokes.
We know that LDL is a major contributor to coronary artery disease, which is the leading killer of both men and women. But how important is that ‘healthy’ cholesterol and what does it do, anyway? Here’s what @LIZONFOX asked on Twitter:
When it comes to HDL, the more you have the better. In your blood, HDL acts like a scavenger, gathering up bad cholesterol and taking it back to the liver, where it’s broken down. HDL may also slow the growth of cholesterol plaques on artery walls, so that potential blockages form more slowly.
The higher your HDL is, the lower your risk of heart disease. Even if your total cholesterol is normal, you’re missing out on HDL’s important protective effects if your levels are low. Data from a major heart health study suggests that risk of a heart attack increases 25% for every five point drop in HDL below the average.
But the good news is that raising your HDL by just a little can help you a lot. It has been estimated that for every one point increase in HDL, you lower your risk of heart disease by 2-3%. Very high HDL levels (over 75) have been linked to longer lives and extremely low rates of heart disease. Everyone should try to keep their HDL at 50 or higher.
There are lots of things you can do on your own to boost your HDL:
1. Eat good fats: You can find healthy polyunsaturated fats in foods such as olive and canola oil, almonds, walnuts and fish such as salmon and mackerel. Though they don’t contain fat, cranberries and cranberry juice have also been shown to raise HDL.
2. Lose weight: According to the Mayo Clinic, for every six pounds you lose, your HDL could go up by a whole point. Plus, you’ll look and feel better in the bargain.
3. Quit smoking: Smoking significantly lowers HDL, and quitting has been associated with up to a 10% increase in HDL.
4. Exercise: Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, may also improve HDL within eight weeks. It may take a while for laboratory values to reflect that effort, so don’t get discouraged.
5. Drink alcohol (in moderation): Drinking one to two alcoholic drinks a day can raise HDL. But don’t overdo it – women should drink no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two.