What is HDL?
Cholesterol and Lipids

What is HDL?

Written by

Lauren Dobischok
29 March, 2022

Medically checked article All HOMED-IQ content is reviewed by medical specialists

The abbreviation HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein. This is also known as “good cholesterol”. It is possible to test your HDL value with a home cholesterol test. Cholesterol tests allow you check whether your cholesterol levels are good. A high total cholesterol level usually does not cause specific symptoms, but it does pose a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. HDL plays a role in this.

What does HDL mean?

HDL cholesterol removes excess cholesterol from your blood. HDL is a fatty substance that occurs in your body in tiny spheres. The layer of protein around these spheres makes it possible for cholesterol to be transported through the blood. As a result, excess cholesterol ends up in the liver, which then breaks it down ( Hartstichting ).

Why is HDL cholesterol important?

HDL is a building material for body cells and plays a role in the production of bile and hormones. While HDL is known as “good cholesterol”, LDL is “bad cholesterol”. LDL is called “bad” cholesterol because it sticks to the inside of blood vessels. HDL then acts like a broom that clears out the bad cholesterol. The broken-down particles then leave the body through feces. This process protects you against arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

How high can HDL be?

There is no set target for HDL cholesterol, but it is suspected that a higher level lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because HDL removes LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream, and a higher value of HDL positively influences this process (Dutch General Practitioners Association). This is believed to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. An optimal HDL value differs between men and women.

What is a good HDL value?

  • In men: > 1.0 mmol/l
  • In women: > 1.2 mmol/1

Can your HDL be too high?

While HDL values range from high to low, it is best for cardiovascular health if the value is higher than a certain threshold. In men, this threshold is more than 1.0 mmol/l, and in women more than 1.2 mmol/l. A high HDL level is good for the blood vessels, and too low a level increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. HDL is considered to be too low if it is below 0.8 mmol/l.

How high can your cholesterol be?

Your cholesterol level is considered to be elevated when your total cholesterol level exceeds 5 mmol/l. For this total value, the values of LDL and triglycerides (a type of fat that is in our blood) are also included in addition to HDL levels.

How can I test my HDL value?

With the Homed-IQ Cholesterol & Lipids Test you measure your HDL level from home. In addition, you also measure your LDL value and your total cholesterol level. You perform the test through a simple finger prick. A certified laboratory then carries out the analysis of your blood sample, after which you can view the result within a few days.

How often should you test HDL?

There is no general guideline for the frequency of HDL testing. It is possible at any time to have your HDL value checked via a home test. For adults, cholesterol levels usually remain reasonably balanced. Changes in your lifestyle or eating patterns may prompt you to perform another HDL test. Examples of this are:

  • Sudden weight gain
  • Reaching the age of 50
  • After menopause
  • An increase in alcohol consumption

What are the causes of a too high or low HDL values?

An important cause of a too high or low HDL value is heredity. Genetics play a role in cholesterol levels, and despite following a healthy lifestyle you may have elevated cholesterol levels and low HDL. An HDL level that is too low can also be caused by smoking, the use of certain medicines, or diabetes. While HDL levels can often be improved by following a healthy lifestyle, the role of genetics is important to consider.

Are there any diseases related to HDL cholesterol?

A lowered HDL cholesterol level increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The risk associated with having a low HDL level is similar to having too high an LDL level.

How many people have low HDL cholesterol levels?

It is estimated that about a quarter of adults in the Netherlands have an HDL level that is too low.

What are the consequences of too high or low HDL?

An HDL value that is too high has no negative effect on your health and can even serve as protection against cardiovascular diseases. The only exception to this is when it exceeds extremely high values. It is more dangerous when your HDL is too low or is not in proportion to your LDL level. Usually there is a balance in the presence of both good and bad cholesterol: two parts LDL cholesterol to one part HDL cholesterol.

What should you do if your HDL cholesterol is too low?

If your HDL level is too low, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to improve it. The most effective modification is to adjust your diet. Foods that are high in HDL are fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, and vegetable oil. Consuming enough fiber also has a positive influence on your overall cholesterol level. Consuming fruits that contain flavonoids can also have a positive effect on your cholesterol level. Flavonoids are substances with anti-inflammatory effects and have been seen to have a positive effect on HDL cholesterol levels. These fruits include, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and grapes (Nutrition Center ).

Other tips for improving your HDL levels are:

  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking

About the author

Lauren Dobischok

Lauren is a health scientist and science communicator currently living in the Netherlands. Originally from Canada, she completed a Research Master’s in Health Sciences at the Netherlands Institute of Health Sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam (NIHES) with a specialisation in epidemiology. Prior to her master’s degree, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. With a background in public health, her goal is to create accurate scientific content that is easy to understand and empowers people to make informed decisions. Within Homed-IQ, Lauren works as a Product Developer and Content Lead, working closely with physicians and scientists on medical devices for Homed-IQ’s new products and written communications.