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Health explained: HDL vs. LDL

Why is one cholesterol good and another bad – and why does it matter?

When was the last time you had your cholesterol checked?

Despite the fact that high cholesterol has been linked to a number of serious health complications including an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, the vast majority of American adults are not sure just how high or low their low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL) levels are. But what you don’t know can hurt you.

Understanding the difference between HDL vs. LDL cholesterol and what your numbers are is important so you can take precautionary measures to achieve a healthier body and a healthier future. Because as Tony Robbins says, “The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results.”

WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is made naturally by the liver and obtained from food sources. While it typically gets a bad rap, cholesterol actually plays a critical role in how your body functions. It helps your system:

  • Produce hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, aldosterone and cortisone
  • Produce vitamin D
  • Produce bile acids which aid in digestion and vitamin absorption
  • Create and maintain cell tissues

Which is “good” cholesterol: HDL or LDL?

You’ve probably heard the terms “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol,” but you may be confused about which is which. When it comes to the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol, HDL is referred to as “good” and LDL is referred to as “bad.” Here’s why.

Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body; without it, your system would not function properly. However, too much of it can be a bad thing. Cholesterol cannot be dissolved into your bloodstream, so it has to be transported by lipoproteins. 

There are two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Let’s take a minute to talk more about HDL vs. LDL cholesterol.

The difference between HDL and LDL

LDL, commonly referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol to cells throughout your body and can cause cholesterol to build up within your arteries. This “plaque” can eventually lead to arterial blockage and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. The higher your LDL levels, the greater risk you have of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke.

HDL, conversely known as the “good” cholesterol, absorbs cholesterol and carries it away from your heart and other organs and back to the liver, which flushes it from the body. HDL has also been noted for its anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies have also shown a correlation between low HDL levels and risk of dementia and memory loss. In contrast to LDL, the higher your HDL levels, the better.

What causes high cholesterol?

To lower your cholesterol levels, you must know what caused them in the first place. Here are some common culprits:

  • Certain medications
  • Diets high in saturated fats
  • Stress
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Other medical conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Genetics
  • Lack of physical activity

Just having one of these potential cholesterol culprits may cause a spike in LDL levels, but many with high cholesterol share several of these traits.

Traditional treatments for high cholesterol

Doctors have prescribed medications to treat high cholesterol for many years. These include statins to block the substance in the liver that produces cholesterol, nicotinic acid to reduce LDL levels, cholesterol absorption inhibitors and drugs that bind to bile and reduce LDL levels. 

While these medications may be necessary for those with extremely high cholesterol, they can have unpleasant and even dangerous side effects. If you’re able to, balance your cholesterol levels naturally through lifestyle changes.

Are you at risk?

High cholesterol itself does not have symptoms, which is why so many do not take proactive measures to treat it. But about one in every six adult Americans has high cholesterol, and the fact that even children can develop it, makes it crucial to consider the facts when learning about HDL vs. LDL cholesterol.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Approximately 73.5 million adults (31.7%) in the United States have high LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
  • Fewer than 1 out of every 3 adults (29.5%) with high LDL cholesterol has the condition under control.
  • Less than half (48.1%) of adults with high LDL cholesterol are getting treatments to lower their levels.
  • People with high total cholesterol have approximately twice the risk for heart disease as people with ideal levels.
  • Nearly 31 million adult Americans have a total cholesterol level greater than 240 mg/dL.

This is why the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends getting your cholesterol checked at age 20, and then every 5 years after that. This way, your physician will be able to monitor your cholesterol levels and help you develop a treatment plan if necessary.

It’s always better to catch the problem with HDL vs. LDL cholesterol early. In addition to checking in with your doctor, consider working with a health coach. Health coaches help you evaluate your lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise routine, so you can live life in peak health.

What does an HDL vs. LDL cholesterol test measure?

A comprehensive cholesterol test, also called a lipid panel, measures your total cholesterol and the amount of HDL vs. LDL cholesterol in your system. It also measures  your triglycerides. 

When you eat, your body turns the calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. Individuals who consume too much sugar or alcohol, for example, could have high triglyceride levels. The test can be performed by taking and evaluating a blood sample.

What’s considered normal when it comes to HDL vs. LDL test results? The Mayo Clinic recommends the following guidelines:

Total Cholesterol

  • Normal: Below 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 200 to 239 mg/dL
  • High: 240 mg/dL and above

LDL

  • Optimal for people who have heart disease or diabetes: Below 70 mg/dL
  • Optimal for people at risk of heart disease: Below 100 mg/dL
  • Near optimal if there is no heart disease/ High if there is heart disease: 100 to 129 mg/dL
  • Borderline high if there is no heart disease/ High if there is heart disease: 130 to 159 mg/dL
  • High if there is no heart disease/ Very high if there is heart disease: 160 to 189 mg/dL
  • Very high: 190 mg/dL and above

HDL

  • Poor: Below 40 mg/dL (men); below 50 mg/dL (women)
  • Better: 50 to 59 mg/dL
  • Best: 60 mg/dL and above

Triglycerides

  • Normal: Below 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 150 to 199 mg/dL
  • High: 200 to 499 mg/dL
  • Very high: 500 mg/dL or above

The impact of diet on HDL vs. LDL levels

How you eat has a powerful effect on your cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that the amount of cholesterol in the food you eat has little bearing on your actual levels; it’s the mix of fat and carbohydrates in your food that impacts your levels and determines your cholesterol levels. Eating foods that are low in saturated fats and high in omega-3 fatty acids is one way to improve your diet and overall health. Adding foods high in fiber like oatmeal, beans and whole grains also reduces the amount of bad cholesterol in the bloodstream. 

The diet most effective in reducing bad cholesterol and levels is a sustainable health diet full of whole foods and vegetables and low in trans and saturated fats.

Tips on preventing high cholesterol

Though genetics can play a role in your HDL vs. LDL cholesterol levels, there are many lifestyle changes you can make that lower your “bad” cholesterol levels. The first change to make, as mentioned above, is to your diet. Here are some other methods to try:

Eat more soluble fiber. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. When eaten, soluble fiber attracts water in the body, which turns the fiber into a gel-like substance and ultimately slows down digestion, making you feel fuller longer. Insoluble fiber passes through the body more quickly, aiding in digestion but leaving you hungry sooner. While both have heart-health benefits, soluble fiber can also help decrease your LDL. Fill your diet with fiber-rich foods and consume superfoods whenever possible.

Lose weight. If you calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) and find that you are obese or even overweight, losing weight can impact your cholesterol. Researchers studying the relationship between weight and cholesterol levels showed a negative correlation between BMI and HDL levels, and a positive correlation between BMI and total cholesterol.

Take supplements. A number of dietary supplements on the market can help you lower your bad cholesterol (LDL) and improve your health. Fish oil and coenzyme Q10 are both recommended for improving HDL vs. LDL levels and fiber supplements can also help reduce LDL buildup. If you have trouble getting the recommended servings of veggies per day, you can also make a green drink to help fill the gap.

Tips to increase your HDL levels naturally

There are a number of ways to naturally increase your HDL or “good” cholesterol levels. Many of these involve adopting the sustainable health diet mentioned above. Here are some more ways to develop healthy HDL vs. LDL cholesterol levels:

Stop smoking. If you are one of the 46 million Americans who smoke cigarettes, you probably know that one of the best things you can do for your health is to quit. But did you know that if you already have high cholesterol, smoking can actually accelerate the damage done by your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels? Research has also shown that smoking may directly decrease your levels of “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. And when the toxins from cigarette smoke are inhaled, your system produces higher levels of “oxidized” LDL.

Get active. Increasing your fitness not only impacts your HDL vs. LDL levels – it also improves every aspect of your life. One study showed that men who exercise regularly may delay increases in blood cholesterol levels that commonly occur with aging. Another study suggests that exercise can increase the concentration of HDL, especially when accompanied by weight loss. Regular physical activity also helps reduce triglyceride levels. Of course, being active can also contribute to weight loss, which is a major factor in decreasing “bad” cholesterol. Aim for a mix of cardio, strengthening and stretching exercises to reach optimal health.

Monitor your alcohol use. Though there is some evidence that a moderate amount of alcohol – especially red wine – can increase HDL levels, too much is not healthy for any part of your body. When trying to achieve healthy HDL vs. LDL cholesterol levels, don’t overindulge in drinking. In addition, avoid any sugary drinks that can spike your blood sugar and raise LDL levels.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to change your HDL vs LDL levels. Treat your health like the other areas of your life – set goals and follow through with them. By ensuring your body has the proper nutrients it needs and plenty of exercise, you’re setting yourself up for success in all areas of your life.

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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