You are probably aware that, when it comes to heart health, maintaining normal cholesterol levels should be a top priority. But did you know that there is another key marker of heart health that you should be keeping in check? They are called triglycerides.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having high levels of triglycerides in the blood can increase your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, especially when combined with low HDL “good” cholesterol and/or high LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. This is why doctors recommend that it should also be monitored and kept at normal levels especially if you have other risk factors for heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or smoking.

But what exactly are triglycerides? And how can we ensure that we keep the levels in the safe zone? Let’s find out in this article.

What are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat (lipid). They are closely related to cholesterol (another type of lipid) but serve a different purpose and are produced differently.

You can get triglycerides from dietary sources such as oils, butter, and fatty meats. Your liver also makes them out of excess calories. When you eat more calories – mainly from carbohydrate-rich foods such as sweets and refined grains – than your body needs, the excess calories are converted by the liver into triglycerides and then stored in fat cells for later use.

Triglycerides are primarily used by the body for energy. If you are running a long distance, for instance, they provide your body with fuel to keep you moving. If you suddenly lose appetite or are in a fasted state, the triglycerides stored in your fat cells can be accessed by the body and used as fuel to keep your organs functioning.

Given the important role they play, your body needs triglycerides. However, having consistently higher-than-normal-levels of triglycerides in the blood, also known as hypertriglyceridemia, can increase your risk for several health problems.

What is the ideal triglyceride level and why does it matter?

For good health, you should aim to maintain a triglyceride level of less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If your levels exceed 150 mg/dL and are left untreated or uncontrolled for a long time, your risk for heart disease increases.

Very high triglyceride levels can harm more than your heart. If your triglyceride levels reach over 500 mg/dL, you may also be at increased risk of developing painful inflammation of the pancreas, also known as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis causes severe belly pain, nausea, and vomiting. Left untreated, this condition can be life-threatening.

How can you know your triglyceride levels?

Measurement of triglycerides is often done as part of a complete cholesterol test, also known as lipid profile or lipid panel. This usually involves a blood test that determines levels of both cholesterol and triglycerides. To get an accurate measurement, you will be required to fast for 8-12 hours before the test.

High triglyceride levels usually do not cause symptoms until complications arise. This is why getting your triglycerides checked regularly is important to monitor your levels before they get out of hand.

What causes high triglyceride levels?

Many factors can increase your risk of having high triglyceride levels. These include the following:

  • Dietary Factors: The foods you eat have a major impact on your triglyceride levels. Eating too many refined carbohydrates (sugary foods and drinks) and high-fat foods are common culprits.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Being overweight or obese and consuming too much alcohol also increases your triglyceride levels.
  • Medical conditions: Diabetes or prediabetes, hypothyroidism, metabolic syndrome, and chronic kidney disease are all linked to higher triglyceride levels.
  • Some medications: Some birth control pills, steroids, HIV medications, and beta blockers can also increase triglyceride levels.
  • Genetics: People with genetic disorders, including the inherited disease familial hypertriglyceridemia and familial combined hyperlipidemia (triglyceride and LDL are both elevated) have a higher risk of having high triglycerides regardless of diet and lifestyle.

How can you lower your triglycerides?

Since high triglyceride levels can be caused by several factors, the first thing that you should do is to talk to your doctor.

Your doctor can help determine the cause of your high triglycerides and develop a treatment plan to effectively lower your levels. If your doctor finds that the cause of your high triglycerides is one of the medications listed above, you may be given an alternative medication that won’t affect your levels. Medicines to lower triglyceride levels may also be prescribed if your triglyceride levels are very high.

However, regardless of other factors, making lifestyle changes are necessary for your treatment plan. The following are some general tips that you can do to lower your triglyceride levels:

  • Limit intake of saturated fat. This type of fat comes from animal products, such as red meats and whole-milk dairy foods.
  • Limit intake of simple carbohydrates. They usually include sugary foods and drinks and refined grains (i.e., white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice) that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients.
  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are usually found in fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and herring.
  • Increase your fiber intake. You can do this by eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains every day.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
  • Get regular exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week. This can help lower your triglycerides and boost "good" cholesterol.
  • Cut back on alcohol. The high calories and sugar in alcohol significantly impact triglyceride levels.

Overall, improving your triglyceride levels requires a lot more than making necessary adjustments in your diet and lifestyle. You must also work closely with your doctor to keep track of your levels and take action when needed. By doing these things, you can effectively lower not just your triglycerides but also your overall risk for heart disease and other health problems.

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