When you think of raised cholesterol causing coronary heart disease, most of us assume that LDL cholesterol is to blame. In reality, triglycerides can also be a cause. In fact, a high level of triglycerides (also known as hypertriglyceridemia) can cause other serious health problems including acute pancreatitis. So what exactly are triglycerides? How do they affect our health and what can we do to keep our triglyceride levels in check? In this article we’ll answer all of these questions so you can ensure that hypertriglyceridemia doesn’t affect your health or your life.
What are Triglycerides?
Triglycerides are fats that are found in our blood. Cholesterol and trigylcerides are both sorts of lipids (fats) that travel around our bodies in our blood. In a full lipid count or cholesterol test, your doctor will assess the level of triglycerides in your blood as well as your HDL and LDL cholesterol. The function of triglycerides and cholesterol is very different. What is cholesterol used for? Cholesterol builds cells and certain hormones. Triglycerides provide us with energy. For a long time people believed that LDL cholesterol was the offender of these three lipids, but new research shows that HDL cholesterol is not always “good”. Triglycerides can also cause a number of health problems when their levels spiral out of control.
Why does this matter?
Confusion surrounding blood lipids and cholesterol can mean that people don’t take the proper precautions and may even make decisions that will have an adverse affect on their health. Staying healthy isn’t about blindly following advice. You should truly understand the implications of your diet and lifestyle choices. Understanding that hypertriglyceridemia means a high level of triglycerides in the blood is a good start. Understanding the role of triglycerides is useful too, but there is much more to it than that.
How do triglycerides affect our health?
Triglycerides are really useful, in that they release valuable energy between meals. Your body will convert all of the calories that you eat into a useful form. Many of the calories will be converted into energy and used immediately, anything left over will be converted into triglycerides which are stored in your fat cells. Certain hormones play an important role in releasing triglycerides when our bodies require extra energy between meals. If triglycerides are not used up then they are stored in fatty deposits which can eventually lead to obesity. Triglycerides can actually produce twice the amount of energy of either carbohydrate or protein and they also play a vital role in cell function.
That’s not all…
There is no denying that triglycerides play an important role in giving our bodies energy. However, if you have too much of these lipids then you may be putting your health at risk. Triglycerides come from foods that have a high fat content. Consuming too much fatty food or not burning off enough calories will mean that the triglycerides remain in your system in the form of fatty deposits.
Cardiovascular disease is a serious risk for anyone with hypertriglyceridemia. An excess of triglycerides can also lead to obesity which in turn can cause stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, gout, osteoarthritis, gallstones and sleep apnea.
What causes high triglycerides?
There are a number of factors that can cause hypertriglyceridemia including:
- consuming more calories than you burn on a regular basis
- drinking excessive alcohol
- eating too much fatty food (fatty red meat, full-fat dairy products, butter, lard, processed foods etc)
It can also be linked to certain medical conditions:
- diabetes (that is not under control)
- hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid)
- kidney disease
It can even be caused by certain medications, including:
- birth control pills
- Tamoxifen (also known as Nolvadex – used in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer in women and men)
How can you actually use this information?
If you are displaying any of the risk factors then your doctor will want to carry out a full lipid count. This is why it is so important to inform your doctor of any medical history and to be as honest as possible about your lifestyle habits, including how much you drink, if you exercise and what sort of diet you have. Hypertriglyceridemia does not usually show any symptoms, so you may not be aware of your elevated triglyceride levels until it is too late. In rare cases high triglycerides may be cause by a genetic conditions, resulting in the build up of visible fatty deposits under the skin. These fatty deposits are known as xanthomas. These are a sign that you need medical attention.
High triglycerides and metabolic syndrome
What is metabolic syndrome? It is a combination of a variety of different symptoms that can increase your risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. As well as high triglycerides, people with metabolic syndrome can also have high blood sugar, large waist measurements, high blood pressure and low levels of HDL (the so-called “good” cholesterol). If you are exhibiting this combination of symptoms then you are putting your body at risk of heart disease or other cardiovascular conditions.
Here’s the deal!
High levels of lipids, including triglycerides and LDL cholesterol are one of the main causes of coronary artery disease. Whether you are suffering from hypertriglyceridemia or hyperlipidemia (or high cholesterol) because of your lifestyle choices or a genetic (familial hypertriglyceridemia) or medical reason, it is important to do all you can to ensure they return to a safe level. In the case of genetic and medical conditions, your doctor may be able to advise you to change medication or undergo specific treatment. There are also certain precautions that everyone with elevated levels of triglycerides should take.
- reduce the amount of alcohol that you consume
- lose weight and stay at a healthy BMI
- find time to exercise or adopt a more active lifestyle
- stop smoking
- reduce the amount of fats in your diet
- reduce the amount of sugars in your diet
- consume more omega-3s
A recent study showed successful treatment of severe hypertriglyceridemia with a formula diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides.
Limiting your alcohol consumption to 2 units a day, engage in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week (this could include swimming, speed walking or cycling), keep your weight at a healthy BMI (between 18.5 and 24.9), eating more fresh fruit and vegetable and cutting back on sugars, fats and excessive calories. All of these things can make a massive impact on your health. If you haven’t had a full lipid count for some time, then it might be worth having it checked out. If your lifestyle involves some habits that might be having a negative impact on your health, then why not take this chance to change those habits and enjoy a healthier and happier life.