Triglycerides & Heart Health
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are fats from the food we eat that are carried in the blood. Most of the fats we eat, including butter, margarines and oils, are in triglyceride form. Excess calories, alcohol or sugar in the body turn into triglycerides and are stored in fat cells throughout the body.
How are triglycerides different from cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both fatty substances known as lipids. But, triglycerides are fats; cholesterol is not. Cholesterol is a waxy, odorless substance made by the liver that is an essential part of cell walls and nerves.
Cholesterol also plays an important role in body functions such as digestion and hormone production. In addition to being produced by the body, cholesterol comes from animal foods that we eat.
Pure cholesterol cannot mix with or dissolve in the blood. Therefore, the liver packages cholesterol with triglycerides and proteins in carriers called lipoproteins. The lipoproteins move this fatty mixture to areas throughout the body. An elevated triglyceride level increases the risk of heart disease.
When are triglyceride levels measured?
Triglyceride levels are usually measured whenever you have a blood test called a Lipid Profile. Everyone over age 20 should have their cholesterol checked at least every 5 years. Your healthcare provider can check your cholesterol and triglyceride levels by taking a sample of blood, which is sent to a lab for testing. The Lipid Profile shows your triglyceride level, total cholesterol level, HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol) levels.
Blood triglyceride levels are normally high after you eat. Therefore, you should wait 12 hours after eating or drinking before you have your triglyceride levels tested. Many other factors affect blood triglyceride levels, including alcohol, diet, menstrual cycle, time of day and recent exercise.
What are the guidelines for triglyceride levels?
The national guidelines for fasting triglyceride levels in healthy adults are:
- Normal: Under 150 mg/dl
- Borderline High: 151–200 mg/dl
- High: 201–499 mg/dl
- Very High: 500 mg/dl or higher
Levels higher than 200 mg/dL are associated with an increase in the risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
How can triglyceride levels be lowered?
If your triglyceride levels are high, the next step is for your doctor to check for potential causes. Certain medications, thyroid function issues, poorly controlled diabetes, liver or kidney disease can all cause triglyceride levels to be higher than normal.
The first steps in treatment to lower triglyceride levels include eating a healthy diet, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, and aerobic exercise on a regular basis.
To lower your triglyceride levels, your diet should be:
- low in fats
- low in sugars
- low in simple carbohydrates (the white stuff….potatoes, pasta, bread); and
- low in alcohol
If you have high triglycerides and low HDL or high LDL levels, you may need to take medication along with making lifestyle changes. If your triglyceride levels are in the very high range (over 500 mg/dL) you are at risk to develop other medical problems, so you will most likely need to take medication.