Good and bad cholesterol. Saturated and unsaturated fat. Sometimes it seems like you need a program to keep track of all the fat players in the story of heart disease.
David Montgomery, MD Cardiologist
Triglycerides may be the easiest to understand.
Simply put, they are fat in the blood. They are used to give energy to your body. If you have extras, they are stored in different places in case they are needed later.
A high level has been linked to a greater chance for heart disease. But just what your own level means and how much it helps to lower it is sometimes less clear.
You and your doctor have ways to lower your level if it is running high.
What Are Triglycerides?
They are important to life and are the main form of fat – they are sometimes called “lipids” -- in the body. When you think of fat developing and being stored in your hips or belly, you're thinking of triglycerides.
They are the end product of digesting and breaking down fats in food. Some are made in the body from other energy sources, such as carbohydrates. When you’re between meals and need more energy, your body’s hormones release them so you tap those unused calories.
How They’re Measured
Your doctor may give you a common test called a lipid panel. It checks for different types of cholesterol, including the levels of the "good" kind and the "bad" kind. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone 21 and older get a lipid panel at least every 5 years.
The levels are checked after an overnight fast. Fat from a recent meal can muddy the picture.
These tests are important because you rarely have any symptoms when your triglycerides are high, unlike with many other conditions.
What Are Normal and High Levels?
The National Cholesterol Education Program sets guidelines for triglyceride levels:
- Normal levels: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter
- Borderline high:150 to 199
- High: 200 to 499
- Very high: 500 or more
Elevated levels may lead to heart disease, especially in people with low levels of "good" cholesterol and high levels of "bad" cholesterol. The same is true if you have type 2 diabetes.
Experts once debated how important triglycerides are, but it now seems clear that higher levels are linked to problems such as heart disease.
One thing is clear, though: A good diet and exercise plan can lower triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol, and decrease the chance of heart disease.
The main way to deal with high triglycerides is to eat better and get more exercise. Here are some guidelines to help you manage your level:
Moderate exercise: Try to exercise 5 or more days each week. Talk to your doctor before you begin any exercise plan.
Watch your weight: If you’re carrying extra pounds, losing 5% to 10% of your weight can lower triglycerides. People with a healthy weight are more likely to have normal levels. Belly fat is associated with higher numbers.
Eat less bad fat: Try to lower the saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol in your diet. Cutting back on carbohydrates will help, too.
Drink less alcohol: Beer, wine, and liquor can raise levels. Some studies show that more than 1 drink a day for women or 2 for men can increase levels by a lot.
Go fish: Mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon are high in omega-3s, a fat that’s good for you. It may be hard to get enough omega-3s from food. Your doctor may recommend a supplement or prescription.
For some people, good habits may not be enough. Medication might be needed. The decision for you and your doctor can be complicated because other health conditions are usually involved. Several types of medicine can improve levels. They include:
- Fibrates (Lopid, Fibricor, and Tricor)
- Nicotinic acid (Niaspan)
- High doses of omega-3s are needed to lower triglycerides and should be taken only under a doctor's care. Epanova, Lovaza, and Vascepa are prescription forms of omega-3s.
Your doctor may also prescribe a class of drugs called “statins” that lower cholesterol. Examples include: atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor).
You may feel side effects from these drugs. Be sure to talk it over with your doctor or pharmacist.