Do You Know Your Triglyceride Level?
The biggest misconception is that triglycerides and cholesterol go hand in hand. Not quite. Here, experts break down why you should know the difference.
Ok, so you have a rough idea of what your BMI is, and you’re pretty sure your blood pressure isn’t too high or too low. You might even be monitoring your total cholesterol. But what about your triglycerides? If you can’t even pronounce the word, you’re not alone—generally, it’s not something that pops up in casual conversation over a cuppa and an oatmeal muffin. But a high triglyceride level can impact your health in a major way, so it’s worth being clued in. Here’s what you need to know.
What the Heck Are Triglycerides?
They are a type of fat in the blood, explains Gina Tran, M.D., who practices family medicine at PIH Health Physicians in Whittier, CA. “The body stores extra calories and turns them into triglycerides that will be released later when it requires energy,” she adds. FYI, if you’ve noticed that cholesterol and triglycerides are often mentioned together, it’s because they’re both forms of fat. However, cholesterol’s main role is to build cells and certain hormones; unlike triglycerides, it can’t be burned for energy (or exercised off).
It’s a good idea to know your triglyceride levels because if they’re too high, you have an increased risk of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits in artery walls. This, in turn, can lead to heart attack or stroke. A high level of triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) is associated with metabolic syndrome and diabetes, which are major risk factors for heart disease, says Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., director of Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health and Wellness at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
What Triglyceride Levels Mean
A normal triglyceride level is less than 150mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter), says Tomas H. Ayala, M.D., a general cardiologist with the Heart Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Levels between 200mg/dL and 500mg/dL indicate mild to moderate hypertriglyceridemia. At this point, dietary changes are normal enough to bring triglycerides down. “Focus on avoiding concentrated sugars and carbs, such as potatoes, white rice, pasta, pancakes, fruit juice, soda and candy,” Dr. Ayala advises.
Levels over 500mg/dL generally require limiting dietary fat, but Dr. Ayala says this level is uncommon unless there is a genetic abnormality.
Levels of 885mg/dL or more carries an increased risk of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and requires medication.
What Causes High Triglycerides?
Although there may be a genetic component to some high triglyceride levels, other factors play an important role, too, including:
being overweight or obese
excess alcohol consumption
a diet very high in carbohydrates.
Some conditions and medications can also increase triglycerides, such as:
type 2 diabetes
hypothyroidism (abnormally low thyroid hormone production)
nephrotic syndrome (a type of kidney disorder)
oral estrogen replacement
certain HIV drugs
The American Heart Association recommends that everyone over age 20 get their cholesterol and triglyceride levels tested every four to six years, which is done via a fasting blood test.
How to Lower Triglycerides
If you have high triglycerides levels, there’s plenty you can do at home to help bring them down (and if your levels are normal, it’s worth making these things a priority to ensure they don’t start creeping up).
First off, take a look at your diet. Top priority should be increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower triglyceride levels and have general anti-inflammatory effects on the body. The best natural source of omega-3s is oily fish, but even eating a portion of herring, mackerel or salmon a few times a week might not be enough.
A study carried out by the supplement company MegaRed tested the omega-3 levels of residents in Newport, RI, and had interesting results. You’d think a coastal community with seafood in abundance would smash those fatty-acid targets, right? In fact, more than 96% of those tested had lower than the recommended omega-3 index levels.
Those findings are consistent with a study carried out by Dr. Steinbaum and her colleagues, which found that blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are significantly below the optimal range in 98% of the population—even those who thought they were eating a balanced diet.
“I tell my patients that just like you know your cholesterol level or blood pressure, it’s important to know your omega-3 levels, and make changes if they are low, whether that’s by changing your diet or taking a quality omega-3 supplement,” Dr. Steinbaum says. A science advisory from the American Heart Association found that prescription omega-3 fatty acid medication reduces triglyceride levels by 20% to 30% among the majority of people who require treatment for high triglyceride levels.
Of course, it’s not all about fatty acids. Experts recommend a range of lifestyle modifications to lower high triglycerides—the same ones recommended for people at increased risk for heart disease. According to Dr. Ayala, these include weight loss in patients with obesity, regular aerobic exercise, avoiding concentrated sugars and simple carbohydrates, reducing alcohol consumption, and aggressive blood-sugar control for people with diabetes.