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What is High-density lipoprotein (HDL)?

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is one of five major lipoproteins responsible for transporting cholesterol around the body. HDL is beneficial because it removes excess cholesterol from the tissues and transports it to the liver where it can be disposed of.  As a result, HDL is often referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol, the removal of excess cholesterol and its protection of artery walls from low-density lipoprotein (LDL) helps prevent the arteries from becoming narrow.[1]

Why take an HDL blood test?

An HDL blood test measures the amount of cholesterol carried on HDL particles in the blood. HDL cholesterol testing can help to identify your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Usually, high cholesterol levels are due to non-HDL cholesterol levels which are the bad type and is the cause of health complications such as narrow arteries.

Knowing what your HDL levels are can help you to make lifestyle changes which are healthier and can help to improve your cholesterol levels.

You can test your HDL levels by purchasing a simple at-home finger prick test kit which is then analysed at an accredited lab. Forth offers a number of blood tests which include HDL such as a Cholesterol Check which can be purchased for just £39.00 or our best-selling Baseline Plus test which includes cholesterol and more than 15 other biomarkers essential to good health.

What function does HDL have in the body?

HDL is known as good cholesterol because high levels are associated with lower incidences of cardiovascular disease.[2]

HDL is the smallest of the lipoprotein particles, but it is also the densest because it has a higher proportion of protein to lipids ratio. HDL transports cholesterol to the liver where it is excreted into the bile. It can also be taken to the adrenals, ovary or testes where it is used to make steroid hormones. The properties of HDL help to protect the arteries from atherosclerosis (thinning of the arteries), mainly because it helps to remove excess fats from the artery walls. A build-up of fat causes the constriction of the arteries and can lead to blockages which cause cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes.[3]

How do changes in HDL affect health and wellbeing?

Reduced HDL levels may not cause any specific symptoms but there are various risk factors associated with low levels.  Higher levels of HDL are preferred because this reduces the risk of cardiovascular complications, although it is best to keep them within the normal range.[1]

If you are worried about your cholesterol levels or just want to check where you fall on the range, you can test your HDL level with a simple at-home blood test.

What can cause HDL to change?

There are certain factors which can increase your risk of low HDL levels and cardiovascular disease. These are:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight
  • Having a close relative who has cholesterol problems
  • Family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Poor diet


What are the most common symptoms?

There aren’t really any common symptoms for reduced HDL but there may be other signs to look out for like high blood pressure.

​How to keep HDL in the healthy range

The best way to ensure your cholesterol levels are under control is to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Diet can have major benefits for HDL cholesterol levels. The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to have healthy effects like lowering blood pressure and improved lipid profiles.[4]

You can make your diet more Mediterranean-like by:

  • incorporating lots of starchy foods like bread and pasta
  • eating lots of fruits and vegetables
  • include lots of fish in your diet
  • eating less meat
  • using products made from vegetable, plant oils like olive oil[5]

Exercise is also an important factor in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial and is defined as exercise which increases the heart rate.[6] You should aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, 5 times per week to maintain a healthy lifestyle and reduce cholesterol levels. [7]

Other ways to improve your HDL levels include:

  • give up smoking
  • increase unsaturated fat intake
  • reducing alcohol consumption

HDL Tests

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Cholesterol Blood Test

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Nutricheck – Vitamin Deficiency Blood Test

Looking to improve your diet and get a better understanding of your overall health and nutrition? Nutricheck home blood test can help.

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[1] Heart UK. (2019). High HDL Cholesterol. Available at:

[2] Fisher, E, A et al. (2012). HDL Function, Dysfunction, and Reverse Cholesterol Transport. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol: 32(12), pp 2813-2820.

[3] Barter, P. (2005). The Role of HDL-Cholesterol in Preventing Atherosclerotic Disease. European Heart Journal Supplements: 7(Supplement F), F4-F8.

[4] Estruch, R et al. (2006). Effects of a Mediterranean-Style Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors. Annals of Internal Medicine: 145, pp 1-11.

[5] NHS. (2017). What is a Mediterranean Diet? Available at:

[6] Wang, Y and Xu, D. (2017). Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Lipids and Lipoproteins. Lipids in Health and Disease: 16(132).

[7] Mann, S., Beedie, C and Jimenez, A. (2013). Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Med: 44, pp 211-221.

Medically reviewed

This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Nicola Keay.

Nicola has extensive clinical and research experience in the fields of endocrinology and sport and exercise medicine. Nicky is a member of the Royal College of Physicians, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University and former Research Fellow at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Nicky Keay
Dr Nicola Keay

BA, MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, MRCP.​

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