What it means to have high triglycerides
Chances are, during your last physical, your primary care provider ordered a blood test to measure how healthy you are. If the results showed you have high triglycerides, you might be wondering what those are and what high triglyceride levels mean for your long-term health. To help explain, we've answered some commonly asked questions.
Q: What are triglycerides?
A: Triglycerides are a type of fat that comes from the foods we eat. Many foods in the standard American diet, including butter and oils, are in the form of triglycerides already. But the byproducts of other foods, including excess alcohol or sugar, convert to triglycerides and are then stored in the body's fat cells.
Your provider checks your triglyceride levels using a test called a lipid panel. Both triglycerides and cholesterol are lipids. Although triglycerides are fats, cholesterol is not. Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the body that cannot dissolve into blood on its own. To move through the body, it is packaged with triglycerides and a type of protein called lipoprotein.
Q: What's considered a normal triglyceride level?
A: A triglyceride level lower than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is normal. Triglycerides aren't inherently bad. When you need a dose of energy, hormones in your body release triglycerides. But high triglyceride levels can have a negative impact on your health, particularly your heart health.
Q: What does high triglycerides mean?
A: If your triglyceride level is between 150 and 199 mg/dL, it's considered borderline high. A reading between 200 and 499 mg/dL is considered high, and a level 500 mg/dL or higher is considered very high.
Having high triglycerides puts you at a higher risk for atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque buildup in the arteries narrows your blood vessels, cutting off or limiting blood supply to the body. Atherosclerosis puts you at a higher risk of serious health issues, including stroke, heart attack, and peripheral artery disease.
High triglyceride levels are also associated with an increased risk of liver disease and pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
Q: What causes high triglycerides?
A: Some risk factors for high triglycerides are beyond your control. Those include a family history of high cholesterol, certain medical conditions such as kidney disease, and some medications. However, certain lifestyle factors can raise triglyceride levels, and those factors are in your control.
- Lifestyle-related risk factors for high triglycerides include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Consistently eating more calories than you burn
- Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol
- Eating foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, such as baked goods and bread
- Having a sedentary lifestyle
- Having poorly controlled diabetes
If you're at a high risk for high triglycerides due to an underlying condition or your family medical history, talk with your provider about steps you can take to lower the risk factors that are within your control.
Q: Are there high triglycerides symptoms?
A: High triglycerides fall in the category of "silent" conditions, meaning they rarely cause symptoms. It's important to have your triglyceride levels checked regularly along with other tests related to your heart health, such as a glucose test for diabetes and a blood pressure check.
Q: How can you lower your triglycerides?
A: If you're diagnosed with high triglycerides, your provider may prescribe medications to lower your levels and protect your health. These medications can include fibrates, nicotinic acid, and high-dose formulations of omega-3 fatty acids.
If you have high triglycerides along with high cholesterol, your provider may prescribe a type of cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin.
In many cases, though, the first-line treatment for high triglycerides is to lower them naturally by making lifestyle changes. Healthy lifestyle habits can help decrease the amount of triglycerides in the body and keep them lower moving forward.
If you've been told you have high triglycerides, these habits may help:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Talk with your provider about what a healthy weight looks like for you, then take steps to achieve it.
- Move your body more. Aim to get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. You can also lower your risk by simply moving your body more often during the day or even standing up more frequently.
- Fuel your body in a healthy way. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables. Choose healthy unsaturated fats, found in foods such as avocado and nuts, rather than saturated fats, which exist in red meat and full-fat dairy, among other sources. Limit your intake of added sugar and processed carbohydrates, like those in white bread. Try to eat two servings of omega-3-rich fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, each week.
- Moderate your alcohol consumption. If you drink, stick with no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Don't smoke. If you smoke, talk with your provider about a smoking cessation strategy to help you quit.