It’s time for your yearly check-up.
Every 6 months or so, we doctors get the crazy idea that we want to:
1. Poke you with a sharp object
2. Draw your blood
3. Try to predict your future.
I suppose it’s better than the Romans - they looked at dead animal parts to make predictions.
Nevertheless, waiting for the results of a blood test can be nerve-racking.
Especially when we find something.
And, often times, we may find unhealthy values in cardiovascular risk markers such as total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL and HDL.
One of the markers that appears to have the most influence on your heart disease risk is HDL cholesterol.
You may want to see if you can get your HDL cholesterol numbers under control naturally before turning to medications.
So I took some time and reviewed what the research says about supporting healthy HDL levels naturally.
Here’s what I found...
Why Improve HDL Levels?
Despite the major focus in our healthcare system to control total cholesterol and LDL with medications such as statins, significant cardiovascular risk can still remain - particularly if HDL levels are low and triglyceride levels are high. (1; 2; 3).
Unfortunately, public understanding is still well behind and our health system continues to focus just on total cholesterol and LDL to gauge cardiovascular health risk. So while the mainstream focus is still on lowering cholesterol and LDL levels, other practitioners have looked for natural ways to support the other markers - especially HDL.
While the relationship between HDL levels and cardiovascular risk is rather clear, there has been concern that the overwhelming focus on pharmaceutical intervention has shifted the focus away from valuable lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, weight reduction, and regular exercise (4).
So if you are looking to support healthy HDL levels naturally, what are your options?
Increasing physical activity is associated with improvements in multiple markers for heart disease, including HDL (5).
It has been thought that the improvement in lipid profiles from physical activity may be largely due to its ability to raise HDL levels, and less on its influence on other markers (6).
Exercise remains the most natural and cost-effective way to support healthy lipid levels and cardiovascular risk.
So get moving!
Niacin (Vitamin B3, Niacinamide, etc) has been used for 50 years in cardiovascular disease treatment (7) and is well known for its ability to increase HDLs and improve lipid particle size, and is regarded one of the most effective options available (8; 9; 10; 11)
Niacin can be associated with an annoying “niacin flush”, but symptoms are typically most severe initially and may decrease with continued use (14).
Fish oil contains the omega 3 fatty acids Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentanoic Acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are recognized for their ability to improve triglyceride levels and support cardiovascular health.
When it comes to HDL levels, the research suggests that supplementation with DHA alone may increase HDL levels by as much as 7.3%, and its effect can be some 5-fold stronger than that of Eicosapentanoic Acid (EPA) alone (15; 16).
DHA sourced from algae has also been shown to support healthy HDL levels (17).
Look for an EPA/DHA fish oil supplement that is rich in DHA.
Olive oil is associated with healthy HDL levels as well as other cardiovascular risk markers (18; 19). The findings have been supported in a few clinical trials involving both children and adults (20; 21; 22).
Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is considered a heart healthy food plan.
Vitamin D is actually an anti-inflammatory hormone and does much more than protect bone health.
I recommend having your levels checked and supplement accordingly!
Magnesium supplementation may support HDL levels through its role with enzymes involved in lipid metabolism (26).
Magnesium is involved with some 300 enzymes in the human body and is important for cardiovascular health.
General Diet Changes
- Replacing high carbohydrate intake with higher fat intake (polyunsaturated, monounsaturated & saturated fat) has ability to increase HDL by 7-12%. Also reducing intake of trans fatty acids may also support healthy HDL levels.
- Moderate alcohol consumption may increase HDL levels by up to 9.2%.
- Generally, dieting, eating more omega 3 fatty acids, and switching to a Mediterranean-style food plan can increase HDLs as much as 4-5%.
- A combination of such changes may lead to even greater improvements.
How to Keep a Healthy Heart
While low HDL levels should be of significant concern for your cardiovascular health, there is no magic secret to raising them.
Engage in regular physical activity, remove refined carbohydrates, & add more vegetables, fruit, fish and nuts.
Lastly, discontinue smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, & consider taking targeted supplements that fit your unique needs and cardiovascular health risk profile.