What is HDL or good cholesterol?

Its role. HDL is the protein package that carries 20% to 30% of the cholesterol in most people's blood. Unlike LDL packages, which are loaded with cholesterol, HDL packages contain mostly protein. HDL is known as good cholesterol because it acts as your body's garbage collector for cholesterol. Here's how.

  • HDL removes excess cholesterol from your blood and returns it to your liver.
  • Your liver converts the excess into bile acids.
  • Bile acids remove more cholesterol from your body by helping cholesterol dissolve in bile.
  • When bile acids and bile pass out of your body as part of your digestion of food, the cholesterol passes out, too.

Its name. You may be able to remember the HDL is the good cholesterol by thinking of it as highly desirable, which begins with the letters HD. Another way to recall that you want a lot of HDL is to remember that the H stands for "higher" - as in, "the higher the better."

What high levels mean. The higher your HDL cholesterol level, the lower your risk for developing heart disease. If your HDL level is low, your doctor may consider your cholesterol profile unhealthy. This can be true if your total cholesterol and LDL levels are in the healthy range. Typically, experts consider an HDL level of 40 mg/dL or more to be desirable. Having an HDL of 60 mg/dl or higher is considered to help protect you from heart disease. Before menopause, women's estrogen levels help them maintain higher HDL levels than men usually maintain. So some doctors suggest that an HDL of 45 or more is desirable for women who have not yet gone through menopause.

Some heart experts believe HDL removes cholesterol from plaque that has already formed in your arteries. This means that a high level of HDL could help slow the growth of plaque. If your HDL is low, you can work with your healthcare team to raise it.