While cholesterol seems to get most of the press, it’s also crucial that you keep track of your blood triglycerides, especially high triglycerides — so that you can keep them at healthy levels or lower them if necessary.
Why Are Triglycerides Important to My Health?
Calories that you consume but don’t burn off as energy are stored in your body in the form of fat known as triglycerides. When you need energy between meals, your body produces special chemicals called hormones that prompt the fat cells to release triglycerides into your bloodstream. If you consume considerably more calories than you actually need, you are very likely to have high levels of triglycerides in your bloodstream. The result is a condition called hypertriglyceridemia; it can increase your risk of developing heart disease and of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
The Diagnosis of Triglycerides
A lipid panel or profile is a set of blood tests that measure blood levels of triglycerides as well as the major forms of cholesterol — total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or (LDL). You will usually be asked to fast (consume nothing but water) for 12 to 14 hours before you have your blood drawn for a lipid panel.
Normal triglyceride levels are less than 150 mg/dL. You are considered to have borderline-high triglyceride levels if your test number falls between 150 and 199 mg/dL; high triglyceride levels are considered to be between 200 and 499 mg/dL, and very high triglyceride levels are 500 mg/dL or more.
What Causes High Triglyceride Levels?
High triglyceride levels often occur in people who are obese. High triglycerides are also part of a constellation of problems collectively known as metabolic syndrome. In addition to high triglycerides, people with this condition have excess fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abnormal blood sugar (glucose) levels, all of which predispose people to a greater risk of heart disease. High triglycerides can also occur in conjunction with:
- Poorly controlled type 2 diabetes
- Low thyroid levels (hypothyroidism)
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Certain genetic conditions
- Medication side effects from beta-blocker high blood pressure drugs, diuretic medications, birth control pills, steroid medications, Tamoxifen (used to treat breast cancer)
How to Achieve Healthy Triglyceride Levels
- If you have diabetes, high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, make sure that you are carefully following all treatment recommendations.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Decrease your calorie intake.
- Decrease your daily intake of sugary and refined foods; eat more complex carbohydrates and fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, legumes).
- Decrease cholesterol intake (less than 300 mg/day for most people, or lower than 200 mg/day if you have already been diagnosed with heart disease).
- Pay attention to the fats in your diet. Don’t eat products that contain trans-fats; cut back on saturated fat; and eat your fat in the form of healthier monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Cut back on alcohol, or (better yet) stop drinking it altogether.
- Exercise, preferably 30 minutes daily.
What If Lifestyle Changes Don’t Lower Triglycerides?
If you try the above interventions and your triglyceride levels are still high, you can talk to your doctor about whether you should take a medication to help lower your triglycerides. Nicotinic acid (also known as niacin) and cholesterol-lowering drugs called fibrates can help lower triglycerides to healthier levels. Statins and bile acid sequestrants, which are used to lower LDL cholesterol, may be used at the same time.