How Much Do You Know About Triglycerides?

Heart Health Steward Health Care

We’ve all heard a lot about cholesterol levels, especially if your doctor is concerned that your level is too high, but what about triglycerides? Having a high level of triglycerides in your blood can increase your risk of heart disease even when cholesterol levels are normal.

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. Unlike cholesterol, which is a lipid that is used to build cells and certain hormones, triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides and these are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn and eat carbohydrates and fats, you may have high levels of triglycerides.

High Triglycerides and Your Health

Although it’s unclear how, high triglycerides may contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls (atherosclerosis), which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. High triglycerides are often a sign of other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke as well, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. But, an elevated triglyceride level can be an independent medical problem or can be due to another existing medical problem. For example, people with poorly controlled type 1 or type 2 diabetes often have elevated triglyceride levels. High triglyceride levels can also be brought on by thyroid disorders, kidney problems, obesity, excess alcohol and taking certain medicines.

How High Is Too High?

A blood test to measure triglyceride levels is easy and can be done along with a routine blood test that also measures various types of cholesterol. The most accurate results are obtained when a person fasts before the test.

The National Cholesterol Education Program classifies triglyceride levels as:

  • Normal – Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or less than 1.7 millimoles per liter (mmol/L)
  • Borderline high – 150 to 199 mg/dL (1.8 to 2.2 mmol/L)
  • High – 200 to 499 mg/dL (2.3 to 5.6 mmol/L)
  • Very high – 500 mg/dL or above (5.7 mmol/L or above)

The American Heart Association recommends that a triglyceride level of 100 mg/dL (1.1 mmol/L) or lower is considered ‘optimal’ and would improve your heart health. However, drug treatment is not recommended to reach this level. Instead, for those trying to lower their triglycerides to this level, lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss and physical activity are encouraged as triglycerides usually respond well to these types of changes.

Ways to Tame Triglycerides

Here are some tips on how to lower triglyceride levels:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown losing weight and maintaining an ideal weight to be associated with decreased levels of triglycerides.
  • Increase physical activity. Aerobic exercise can help with weight loss and can decrease triglyceride levels at the same time. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week.
  • Eat fruits, veggies, and low-fat dairy products. Include these choices as part of your healthy diet.
  • Choose fats wisely. Avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats. Pick food that contains unsaturated fat. Examples include certain oils (e.g., olive, corn, canola), nuts, seeds and avocados.
  • Eat more fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in all types of fish, but are more abundant in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include tofu, soybeans, flaxseed, canola oil, nuts and green leafy vegetables.
  • Limit alcohol. According to the American Heart Association, small amounts of alcohol can increase triglyceride levels.

If it’s been some time since you’ve had your cholesterol checked, now is the time to schedule a blood test and also talk to your doctor about testing your triglyceride levels.

*Source: Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
*Source: American Heart Association, www.heart.org
*Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, www.nhlbi.nih.gov

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