3 Tips to Boost HDL Levels

by Bianca Garilli, ND

When doctors measure our cholesterol, they look at the vehicles that carry it in our blood—which gives them a clue what our body is doing with that cholesterol. The two most common and well-known vehicles are low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is frequently referred to as “bad cholesterol,” while HDL is deemed “good cholesterol,” although it is now known that understanding cholesterol and its effects on the human body are much more complicated than this simplified breakdown.

Nonetheless, it’s still very important to maintain adequate levels of the “healthy” HDL. So if you’ve been told that you need to increase your HDL levels to optimize health, keep reading to discover several HDL-boosting tips.

Tip 1: Exercise!

It’s true! Exercise is not just great for improving body composition, balancing blood sugar, losing weight and feeling happier, it’s also been shown to be associated with a healthier lipid and lipoprotein profile, thus lowering the risk for heart health problems.1,2 In a study comparing well-trained soccer players to sedentary controls, researchers found the average HDL-C levels in the athletes was 12.5% higher than in the nonexercising controls.2 This is important when considering that HDL can be compared to a “dump truck” for the cell; it gathers excess cholesterol left in the artery walls and carries it to the liver for disposal (breakdown and excretion).3 Too little HDL can lead to excess plaque buildup and subsequent risk of cardiovascular issues.2

One medical organization notes that benefits of exercise can be seen in as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, while a meta-analysis that included 25 studies indicates it may be closer to 120 minutes of weekly exercise to experience an HDL benefit.4,5 This meta-analysis concluded that it was the exercise duration rather than intensity or frequency that resulted in best benefits.5 And, in fact, it seems that more is better: “Each 10-minute increase in exercise duration corresponded to an approximately 1.4-mg/dL net increase in HDL-C level.”5

Tip 2: Take targeted nutritional supplements

Nutraceuticals have become an indispensable and regular part of supplementing healthy living these days. Known for their vast array of health benefits, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to also support healthy HDL levels.6 Omega-3s have two broad categories: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both downstream metabolites of the well-known class of anti-inflammatory promoting omega-3s called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA.7 Studies indicate it is the DHA that is most effective in improving HDL levels with one study showing a 4.49 mg/dL increase in HDL when subjects were given DHA compared to placebo subjects not given DHA.6

Tip 3: Stop smoking

It’s been well-established that smoking is detrimental to health and, in particular, is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular health problems.8,9 Smoking has been shown to reduce levels of HDL and other underlying causes that lead to an increased risk of heart issues.9 The good news? When someone quits smoking, a reversal in HDL levels can be seen with the recently smoke-free person’s cardiovascular risk soon approaching that of the long-term nonsmoker.10,11

In summary, higher serum levels of HDL are positively associated with a lowered risk for the development of cardiovascular disease.12 On the flip side, a suboptimal level of HDL may increase an individual’s risk for cardiovascular issues, in both men and women.13

Keeping HDL levels within their optimal range is important. Here are three things you can do right away to ensure your HDL levels are moving in the right direction: 

  1. Exercise routinely and aim for increasing the duration of your exercise routine over time.
  2. Work with a healthcare provider to identify an optimal dose of omega-3 essential fatty acid; you can also increase your intake of omega-3-rich food sources such as cold-water fish, walnuts, and flax seeds.
  3. If you smoke, stop.

For more information on cardiometabolic health and other general wellness topics, please visit the Metagenics blog.


  1. Warburton DE et al. CMAJ. 2006;174(6):801-809.
  2. Brites F et al. Metabolism. 2004;53(10):1262-1267.
  3. Brewer HB Jr. Am Heart J. 2004;148(1 Suppl):S14-8.
  4. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/hdl-cholesterol/art-20046388. Accessed May 20, 2021.
  5. Kodama S et al. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(10):999–1008.
  6. Wei MY et al. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2011;13(6):474-483.
  7. Shahidi F et al. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2018;9:345-381.
  8. Neaton JD et al. Am Heart J. 1984;108(3 Pt 2):759-769. 
  9. Baldassarre D et al. Stroke. 2009;40:1991–1998.
  10. Zaid M et al. Circ J. 2018;82(10):2557-2565.
  11. Gifford RW Jr. Cleve Clin J Med. 1993;60(3):211-218.
  12. Mahdy Ali K et al. Br J Pharmacol. 2012;167(6):1177-1194.
  13. Gordon DJ et al. Circulation. 1989;79(1):8–15.
Bianca Garilli, ND, IFMCP
Bianca Garilli, ND, IFMCP is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor (ND). Dr. Garilli works in private practice in Northern California and consults with naturopathic and Functional Medicine leaders, including the Institute for Functional Medicine and Metagenics. She is passionate about optimizing health and wellness in individuals, families, companies, and communities—one lifestyle change at a time. Dr. Garilli has been on staff at the University of California, Irvine, Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and is faculty at Hawthorn University. She is the creator of the Military and Veteran Health Initiative and is the current Past-President of the Children’s Heart Foundation, CA Chapter.

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