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Triglyceride Levels – Why do they matter?

Triglycerides are important organic compounds, a type of fat (lipid) found in the blood and other parts of the body. They are utilized by the body for energy so you require them in some quantity to maintain good health. Triglycerides are made by the liver naturally but they are also obtained through the food you eat. The body also converts all the extra calories which you consume and are not immediately require into triglycerides. These are then stored in the fat cells for making use of them in the future when your body requires energy.

If the level of triglycerides in the blood increases beyond a normal limit, the condition is referred to as Hyper-triglyceridemia. The level of serum triglycerides can be determined by a blood test for triglyceride levels or as part of a lipid profile test, which also includes tests for various types of cholesterol. The test is done usually in a fasting state by taking blood before meals, as recent food intake will alter the levels of triglycerides in the blood.

High triglycerides increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart attacks, and diabetes. It may also cause metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of high blood pressure, glucose intolerance, high waist circumference, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels. People with metabolic syndrome are at a high risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is important to maintain a correct level of triglycerides. Most health specialists follow the below scale:

  • Very high triglyceride level: more than 500 milligrams per decilitre of blood
  • High triglyceride levels: 200 to 499 mg/dL
  • Borderline triglyceride levels: 150 to 199 mg/dL
  • Normal triglyceride levels: less than 150 mg/dL

Causes of high triglyceride levels:

High triglycerides may be familial, where the condition is transmitted genetically or more often caused by a variety of lifestyle factors related to the choice of foods we eat, exercise and body weight, or some disease conditions. Factors such as:

  1. Being overweight or obese
  2. Poorly controlled diabetes
  3. Hypothyroidism
  4. Kidney disease
  5. Sedentary lifestyle
  6. Less or no exercise
  7. High alcohol intake
  8. In-take of more calories than required
  9. Genetic predisposition – A condition called Familial hypertryglyceridemia
  10. Medicines which include tamoxifen, steroids, beta-blockers, diuretics, estrogen, birth control pills, anti-psychotics, and corticosteroids
  11. Processed or sugary foods
  12. Foods high in cholesterol

As such, there are no known symptoms of having high triglyceride levels but if the levels are very high in case of some familial variants, there may be fat deposits seen under the skin, in the eyes and near joints. Severe hypertryglyceridemia can cause pancreatitis in which case, it causes severe pain in the abdomen along with associated symptoms like vomiting, prostration etc.

Regular monitoring of triglyceride levels is recommended in all adults over 30 yrs of age to assess the cardiac risk status, but especially so in those who have a family history of high triglyceride levels, people who are overweight, have a high waist circumference, lead a sedentary life, women who are pregnant and or on estrogen medication, or having poly cystic ovary syndrome; people on hormone replacement therapy; people having heart disease and taking beta-blockers.

How can high levels of triglycerides be lowered?

When you are diagnosed with high triglyceride levels, then your doctor might initially suggest changes to your diet and lifestyle. Based on the results achieved, medication may be added to reduce levels further if required.

Changes in diet may require cutting down calories, reducing the amount of saturated fat in diet, decreasing alcohol consumption or incorporating more fibre. Eating a diet high in fibre has many advantages. It makes you feel full longer with less calorie in-take, it slows the digestive process thereby lowering the triglyceride levels. Foods rich in fibre are flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, rice bran, split peas, some lentils, broccoli, brussel sprouts, raspberries, whole wheat foods etc.

Getting the right fat is another strategy to lower the triglyceride levels. Not all fats are useful for you. In order to reduce the level of triglyceride levels you must concentrate on mono or polyunsaturated fats and avoid trans-fat or saturated fats. Apart from diet, changes such as avoiding alcohol, doing exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping yourself physically active will all help to lower triglyceride levels to lead a healthy life. A daily structured exercise program of around half to 1 hour is a must.

The main classes of medicines used for lowering triglyceride levels are:

Fibrates: These medicines impair the liver’s ability to release triglycerides.
Statins: There are cholesterol lowering medicines with some effect on lowering triglyceride levels.
Vitamins: Niacin or Vitamin B3- These reduce the activity of a chemical required to produce triglycerides in the liver.

Written by Medplus