The Trouble with Triglycerides
Manage high triglycerides with tips from the pros.
You’ve probably heard of triglycerides, and you’ve probably also heard that consistently high blood levels of triglycerides can be a bad thing.
But what aretriglycerides, exactly? Why would your doctor shake his head if your cholesterol report says that your triglycerides are high? And what do they have to do with diabetes and a group of worrisome symptoms called the “metabolic syndrome?”
What Are Triglycerides?
Simply put, triglycerides are fat. That is, they’re the major form in which our bodies store fat. Fat tissue is made up of cells that fill up with triglycerides.
So triglycerides are bad, right? Well, not normally. In fact, we couldn’t live without triglycerides. “They’re the main way evolution gave us to store energy,” says Mitchell Lazar, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Up until 100 years ago or so, food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is now, and we burned a lot more calories in physical labor. So it was very important to have the ability to store fuel in an efficient way,” Lazar says. “Per pound, you get twice as much energy from your stores of fat as you do from the other two substances we can burn for energy -- proteins and sugars.”
But now there’s a lot more food around, we eat a lot more of it, and we don’t get as much physical activity as we once did. So, most of us are storing significantly more fat than we need -- in the form of triglycerides.
Damage and Diabetes
What’s the problem with having high triglycerides? If triglycerides are fat, and fat is energy, aren’t we just storing more energy? Unfortunately, our bodies often can’t store that extra energy efficiently -- and sometimes those extra fat cells can attract other cells that cause problems for your health.
“For one thing, fat cells tend to attract inflammatory cells,” Lazar says. “Certain inflammatory cells, called cytokines, compromise the body’s ability to deal with sugar and increase your risk of developing diabetes.”
Fat, in the form of triglycerides, also tends to spill over into other tissues, like the liver and the muscle. “This seems to predispose these other tissues to not being able to handle sugar properly and thus, again, increases your risk of becoming diabetic,” Lazar says.