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Low HDL Cholesterol: What Are the Risks?

written by: BStone • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 4/19/2011

High levels of HDL cholesterol are important for preventing heart disease. Find out about low HDL cholesterol, why it should be addressed and how to change it.

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    Good Cholesterol

    High cholesterol levels increase your risk for heart disease, but it is actually important to have high levels of HDL cholesterol, also known as the good cholesterol. HDL stands for high density lipoproteins. These lipoproteins act as beneficial agents in the bloodstream. They take excess cholesterol from the blood and transfer it to the liver so it can be broken down. This helps to lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and helps to prevent the formation of cholesterol plaque along artery walls, which leads to narrowed, hardened arteries.

    LDL (low density lipoproteins) cholesterol is known as the bad cholesterol — when there is too much of this cholesterol in the body, more than tissues and organs require, it continues to circulate through the bloodstream, eventually forming plaque along artery walls.

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    Low HDL, High LDL

    The reason that low HDL cholesterol is not a good thing is that these high density lipoproteins lower levels of LDL cholesterol. Therefore, more HDL means less LDL flowing through your blood and less opportunity for the hardening and narrowing of your arteries. Plaque build-up is known as atherosclerosis. It can restrict blood flow, increase the likeliness of blood clots and also raise blood pressure levels as the heart has to work harder to pump blood through narrow, inflexible arteries and vessels. Low HDL levels ultimately can be a contributing factor in your risk for coronary artery disease. High HDL levels can lower LDL levels, decreasing the risk of heart disease.

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    What Are Healthy Levels?

    According to the American Heart Association, less then 40 mg/dL for men and less then 50 mg/dL for women are considered to be low HDL cholesterol and are regarded as a major heart disease risk factor. 60 mg/dL or more is healthy and is considered to be protective against heart disease.

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    How to Improve HDL Cholesterol Levels?

    Factors such as a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and smoking can all contribute to lower HDL levels. To improve levels:

    • Don't smoke
    • Exercise regularly — 30 to 60 minutes several times a week
    • Eat a heart healthy diet

    Minimize foods that are high in saturated fats, such as red meat, butter, cheese and whole milk. Be sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet and regularly consume heart healthy fat sources such as salmon, mackerel, avocados, nuts, seeds and olives. Eat fish one to two times a week and substitute beans and tofu for meat dishes several times a week.

    Lower levels of HDL cholesterol should be managed with a healthier lifestyle. Low HDL is actually a heart disease risk factor. While high cholesterol is in general a health risk, high HDL cholesterol actually helps to lower bad cholesterol levels.

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    References

    American Heart Association. What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/What-Your-Cholesterol-Levels-Mean_UCM_305562_Article.jsp

    Mayo Clinic. Cholesterol Levels. http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2010-mchi/5785.html?rss-feedid=4

    American Heart Association. Good vs. Bad Cholesterol. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/Good-vs-Bad-Cholesterol_UCM_305561_Article.jsp