Cholesterol is one of those scary words. So many ideas cross our minds when we think of it, like narrowed arteries, heart disease, stroke, heart attack, general poor health.
But there are many components to cholesterol, and types that are looked at when considering health, like the numbers associated with triglyceride levels, total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Our bodies produce this substance naturally and it is vital to health. So it’s important to consider the lesser-known types of cholesterol: HDL, or the “good” type, and how to increase it to increase our chances of heart health and long life.
What is cholesterol?
Despite all the bad press and what you may think, cholesterol is good. And it’s vitally important to the body.
It is produced in your liver and ingested via animal products, and is required for:
- The production of vitamin D…
- To make hormones that protect you against cancer and heart disease and protect you against the effects of stress…
- To make sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone and others…
- To make bile for digestion…
- It is also a component of cell membranes, a building block for human tissue, and is needed to help serotonin receptors function properly.
Cholesterol is amazing stuff you need!
When you take a blood test you get several numbers back, which indicate your levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL and HDL cholesterol. While you want your triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels to be low, you want your HDL cholesterol levels to go up.
There are two sides to cholesterol, of course; the good and the bad. The bad is what you have to watch out for, and is known as low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL can lead to hardening of the arteries and plaque buildup on arterial walls that can slow the flow of oxygenated blood through the body and also cause blood clots that can cause stroke and heart attack.
HDL or high density lipoprotein is the good kind of cholesterol. Let’s take a look.
HDL cholesterol is vital to the body, especially for optimal cardiovascular health. The special job of HDL is transporting LDL cholesterol and plaque buildup from the arteries back to the liver for breakdown.
Having low HDL numbers can actually increase risk of heart attack and stroke while higher numbers can protect again those silent killers. Higher levels of HDL also have been shown to lower your risk of colon cancer
While the optimal level of HDL is 60 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dL), keeping it between 60 and 40 will help protect your heart health. When levels drop into the 30s you are at risk.
While many are familiar with ways to lower LDL, such as taking red yeast rice supplements, we need to focus on raising HDL, too. For information on why to avoid statins and what to do to drop your bad cholesterol, click here.
Below are some natural strategies to do so, easily incorporated into daily life via simple changes to food and habits.
The HDL boosting diet
Just like all areas of wellness, what you eat matters and one of the best ways to increase HDL is through diet. Here are six things you should consume more of to add to your daily diet to boost HDL levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids pack a one-two punch by increasing HDL while also lowering LDL. They are a heart-healthy fat that is found in fish like wild Alaskan salmon, albacore tuna and trout, and are also available in supplement form for those who don’t like fish. You can read more about Omegas here.
- Ground flaxseeds are amazing in that they are the number one source of antioxidant lignans, contain 8 gm of gluten-free fiber in each ounce serving, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. You must use ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil because your body cannot breakdown the whole flax, and their nutty flavor is great when sprinkled into smoothies and yogurt and onto salads and cereals.
- Olive oil is a heart-healthy oil that works to decrease systemic inflammation. It is inflammation that is the issue leading to cholesterol sticking in the arteries, leading over time to arterial blockage, heart attack and strike. Olive oil decreases inflammation and also raises HDL. When cooking keep the temperature low, and use it raw on salads.
- Avocado raises HDL and lowers LDL because it is high in the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, folate. What’s more, avocados are packed with 10g of fiber in every cup which helps clean cholesterol from blood and move it through the bowels. And they taste great raw, in smoothies, on salads and in their guacamole form.
- High-fiber foods like fruit is another tasty way to raise HDL while lowering LDL cholesterol. You need to avoid the low-fiber fruits that convert to sugar too quickly, and increase your intake of apples, blackberries, raspberries and pears (which offer 5gm of fiber), and bananas, blueberries, dates, figs, plums and kiwis (which offer 2.5 gm of fiber). Beans, legumes, nuts, and chia are also high-fiber foods that increase HDL and lower LDL. The most fiber-packed includes black beans, navy and kidney beans, lentils and black eyed-peas, Brazil nuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, and chia seeds. You can read more about the huge benefits of a high-fiber diet here.
- Red, blue and purple produce are another food category that will boost HDL while lowering LDL. This color range of foods includes plums, grapes (blue, red, purple), cherries, raspberries, pomegranates, beets, eggplant (Japanese and Italian), purple cabbage, red onions, and more. What gives these produce their heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant power is the chemical anthocyanins, which give them their color.
Lifestyle changes improve HDL
Improving your diet is a primary way to boost your HDL cholesterol and changing your lifestyle a bit can boost them even more. Lifestyle changes are also needed to remove some LDL triggers from impacting your health, too.
- Get up and move your body. We sit for far too long, and you can read here and here why doing this leads to early death. Exercise is a proven way to lower LDL and boost HDL cholesterol and it does not take a gym or aerobics class to reap the benefits. Doing housework like cleaning and vacuuming and ironing, when added up, can be enough for one day. Walking and dancing are terrific too, at a brisk pace. Doing about a half hour of elevated-cardio rate activities will work wonders.
- Losing weight also helps raise HDL and lower LDL. The best results come when weight loss occurs slowly, since people tend to keep the pounds off. Exercise and dietary changes, as discussed above, are the way to do it.
- Quitting smoking is essential for heart health. Smoking provides an internal environment for cholesterol to stick in the blood vessels. This does two things: 1) it causes plaque buildup which can leads to stroke and heart attack, and 2) it makes it much more difficult for HDL to sweep pout the LDL.
- Ditch added sugars because the more you consume the lower your HDL levels will be. According to this JAMA article, the more your daily calories are derived from added sugar, the lower your HDL levels. Conversely, those who consumed less than 5% added sugars daily had the highest levels of HDL “good” cholesterol levels.
Here, again, the “diet and exercise” model prevails. Adding heart-healthy foods to your diet and getting exercises several days per week will boost your HDL and lower your LDL. What’s more, this combo will also help you shed pounds and if you quit smoking too, you can again have a healthy heart and live a longer, more vibrant life.
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