Could “good” cholesterol be the solution to chronic inflammation and atherosclerosis? According to a new study from the University of Bonn in Germany, high-density lipoprotein (“good” cholesterol) can help reduce inflammation and offset the effects of low-density lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol). The findings may help nutritionists and physicians develop new palliative care programs for people living with conditions like diabetes.

Today, it is generally accepted that high cholesterol values increase a patient’s risk of suffering a range of diverse health outcomes. Prevailing research suggests that low-density lipoprotein (LDL) contributes to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which in turn raises the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke. For this reason, physicians recommend that at-risk patients limit their intake of eggs, red meat, and other foods associated with elevated LDL levels.

Conversely, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, has been associated with a number of health benefits, including a lower rate of atherosclerosis. However, no studies have so far been able to determine precisely why these benefits obtain. "It has long been known that HDL has a protective function in cardiovascular diseases that are based on atherosclerosis," study author Eicke Latz said in a press release. "The molecular causes to which this protective effect of HDL can be attributed were unclear until now."

The new study, which is published in the journal Nature Immunology, sought to explain the benefits of HDL by analyzing genetic responses. "At first, we were really just feeling around in the dark," Latz said. "[But] with the aid of genomic and bioinformatics approaches, we were able to filter out a candidate gene from the wealth of regulated genes.”

Using cellular samples from mice and humans, the researchers were able to link these benefits to ATF3 — a so-called transcriptional regulator that helps modulate the body’s inflammatory response. According to the researchers, HDL works together with ATF3 to restrict inflammatory activity related to high LDL levels. "Our studies also indicate that the amount of HDL in blood alone is not decisive for the protective function of HDL, but that the anti-inflammatory function is probably more important,” the researchers wrote. “These results also suggest a molecular approach for treating inflammation in other widespread diseases, such as diabetes." 

Several lifestyle choices can help you raise your HDL values. For example, foods like fish, oils, nuts, and red wine have all been associated with elevated levels of good cholesterol. To learn more about HDL, visit the Mayo Clinic’s guide to high cholesterol.

Source: Dominic DN, Larisa IL, Hajime K et al. High-density lipoprotein mediates anti-inflammatory reprogramming of macrophages via the transcriptional regulator ATF3. Nature Immunology. 2013