Triglycerides are an important measure of heart health. Here’s why triglycerides are important and what to do if your triglycerides are too high.
If you’ve been keeping tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, that’s not enough, there’s something else you might need to monitor: your triglycerides. Having a high level of triglycerides in your blood can increase your risk of heart disease. But the same lifestyle choices that promote overall health can help lower your triglycerides, too.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in the blood. When you eat, your body converts all the calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. Triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, the hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals and in case of effort and therefore the need for additional energy. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, especially from carbohydrate-rich foods, you may have high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia).
What is considered normal?
A simple blood test can reveal if your triglycerides are in a healthy range:
- Normal — Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl), or less than 1.7 millimoles per liter (mmol/L)
- Upper limit — 150 to 199 mg/dl (1.8 to 2.2 mmol/L)
- High — 200 to 499 mg/dl (2.3 to 5.6 mmol)
- Very high — 500 mg/dL or more (5.7 mmol/L or more)
Your doctor will usually check for high triglycerides as part of a cholesterol test. You must be fasting before the blood test.
What is the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are different types of lipids that circulate in your blood:
Triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy.
Cholesterol is used to build cells and some hormones.
Why are high triglycerides a concern?
High triglycerides can contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the arterial walls (arteriosclerosis), which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. Extremely high triglycerides can also cause acute inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
High triglycerides are often a sign of other factors that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. This group of parameters includes too much fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels.
High triglycerides can also be a sign of:
Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes
Metabolic syndrome: high blood pressure, obesity, and high blood sugar occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease
Low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism)
Some rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat into energy
Sometimes high triglycerides are a side effect of taking certain medications, such as:
- Estrogen and progestin
- Certain immunosuppressants
- Some HIV medications
What’s the best way to lower triglycerides?
Healthy lifestyle choices are essential:
Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day of the week. Regular exercise can lower triglycerides and boost “good” cholesterol. Try to incorporate more physical activity into your daily tasks, for example, climbing stairs at work or going for a walk during breaks.
Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and foods made with white flour or fructose, can raise triglycerides.
Losing weight. If you have mild to moderate hypertriglyceridemia, focus on calorie reduction. The extra calories are converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. Reducing your calories will reduce triglycerides.
Choose healthier fats. Swap the saturated fats found in meats for healthier fats found in vegetable oils, such as olive and canola oils. Instead of red meat, try fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as mackerel or salmon. Avoid trans fats or foods with hydrogenated oils or fats.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Alcohol is high in calories and sugar and has a particularly powerful effect on triglycerides. If you have severe hypertriglyceridemia, avoid drinking alcohol.