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What is HDL cholesterol?

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HDL cholesterol is the "good," or "healthy" cholesterol. HDL lipoproteins carry less cholesterol and triglyceride; instead they contain mostly protein. HDL lipoproteins can pick up LDL and transport it back to the liver where it can be repackaged into something else, or destroyed and gotten rid of. And HDL does not contribute to plaque formation.

Recommended HDL levels differ for men and women. Estrogen increases HDL levels, offering some additional cardiac protection prior to menopause. For women, HDL less than 50mg/dl is considered low, increasing the risk for heart disease. Low HDL levels (less than 50 mg/dl) seem to be a stronger risk indicator for women than men. HDL levels of 60mg/dl or higher are considered "cardio protective" because they lower the risk of heart disease.

A number of things can lower HDL levels:

  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Cigarette smoking
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Androgenic steroids

Reversing those factors by losing weight, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, reducing triglycerides, and stopping androgenic steroids have all been shown to raise HDL levels. A diet that includes omega-3-fatty acids helps raise HDL. Moderate consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine raises HDL, but is not recommended as treatment because of other risks associated with alcohol consumption such as liver damage, hypertension, and high triglyceride levels.

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