You’ve probably heard of cholesterol. You might even know if your levels are too high. But what do you know about your triglycerides? Overall, more than a third of adults in the U.S. have high triglyceride levels, a type of fat in the blood.
Although it's a common problem, many of us don't know the first thing about high triglycerides. Studies have consistently linked high triglycerides levels with heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, especially in people with low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and in those with type 2 diabetes. So if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other things that make you more likely to get heart disease, your doctor will likely want to keep a check on your triglyceride levels.
The good news is that there's a lot you can do on your own to lower triglycerides and improve health.
First, find out if your triglycerides are high. Then, find out what to do about it.
Know Your Triglyceride Numbers
A blood test called a lipid panel checks both your triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Usually, your doctor will ask that you fast, or not eat or drink anything other than water, for 9-12 hours before the test. You’ll get blood taken from a vein in your arm. Some labs offer non-fasting lipid panels, or they may prick your finger for blood.
- Normal: Less than 150 mg/dL
- Borderline: 150 to 199 mg/dL
- High: 200 to 499 mg/dL
- Very High: 500 mg/dL or above
Anyone over age 20 needs to get regular tests to track their cholesterol and triglyceride levels, according to the American Heart Association.
Why Are High Triglycerides Bad?
High triglycerides tend to show up along with other problems, like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, and low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. So it’s hard to know for sure which problems are caused by high triglycerides alone.
For instance, some people have a genetic condition that seems to cause high triglyceride levels. But they don’t have an increased risk of heart disease. Still, there is some evidence that high triglycerides, on their own, increase the risk of disease. Other studies show that high triglycerides may only play a minor role when other heart disease risks are taken into account.
With ongoing studies, scientists hope to find out whether drugs that lower triglycerides also reduce the risks of heart disease.
Overall, it's important to remember that improving diet and lifestyle will lower triglycerides and lower the overall risk of heart and blood vessel problems.
Controlling High Triglycerides: Lifestyle Changes
Although finding out that you have high triglycerides might be upsetting, there's a lot you can do on your own to lower them. Making changes to your lifestyle can have a dramatic benefit. Here are some suggestions:
- Get more physical activity.Exercise can have a big impact on triglyceride levels. Experts recommend that everybody get at least 30 minutes of exercise at least five times a week. If you're out of shape, start slowly. Begin with a quick walk three times a week and then build up from there.
- Lose some weight. If you're overweight or obese, shed a few pounds and try to maintain an ideal body weight. Exercise will help, but you also need to focus on diet. The key is to eat fewer calories -- whether they come from fats, carbs, or protein. Focus on a diet that's high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products. Cutting down on sugary foods -- like sodas -- could really help, too.
- Choose better fats. Pay more attention to the fats you eat. Eat fewer foods with unhealthy fats (found in meat, butter, and cheese) and trans fats (in processed foods and margarines), as well as cholesterol. Boost your intake of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in olive oil, nuts, and some fish. Studies have found that the omega-3s in fatty fish -- like tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines -- are particularly good at lowering triglyceride levels. Because even healthy fats are high in calories, you still need to eat these foods in moderation.
- Cut down on alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol seem to cause big spikes in triglyceride levels. Limit alcohol intake to one drink a day.
Controlling High Triglycerides: Medical Treatment
People with heart disease and high triglycerides may need medication to bring down their levels.
- Fibrates can lower triglycerides. They modestly improve cholesterol levels, too.
- Fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids can help keep triglycerides under control. Ask your doctor whether you should use prescription fish oil. Omega-3 acids from plant sources like flaxseed may help.
- Niacin (nicotinic acid) can lower triglycerides by up to 50%. It's available as a non-prescription supplement and as a prescription drug.
Remember that to stay healthy and keep your triglycerides down, you still have to focus on improving your lifestyle.
When you talk to your doctor, discuss all of the medicines, supplements, and vitamins you take. Some common drugs -- like beta-blockers, birth control pills, and diuretics -- can cause high triglycerides as a side effect. It's possible that one of them could be causing your problem.
High Triglycerides: Getting Help
When it comes to cholesterol and triglycerides, perhaps the most important thing is to get regular screenings.
See your doctor and get checked out. If your triglycerides are high, you and your doctor can decide on a treatment plan -- and you can make a few simple but effective changes to your lifestyle.
How Often Should My Triglycerides Be Tested?
If you’re a healthy adult, you should get a lipid profile every 4-6 years. Children should have it done at least once between the ages of 9 and 11, and one more time between 17 and 21. If you’re making changes to your diet or taking medication for high cholesterol or triglycerides, experts advise you to get a lipid profile afterward.