We were recently asked, “What causes high triglycerides and is there anything I can do about it?” This visitor recently had his blood work done, and his cholesterol was within range, but his triglyceride levels were quite elevated. He hadn’t yet discussed it with his doctor, and we advised him to do so before taking any action.
Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease, especially when coupled with high cholesterol, high homocysteine levels and elevated CRP levels. Together these four blood indicators give you a good indication of your risk, although unfortunately only cholesterol gets any attention these days.
You can learn more about what triglycerides are here, but basically they are fat molecules that are formed from carbohydrate metabolism. They are stored throughout your body as well as within the heart, where they can lead to a heart attack or stroke if not addressed.
How do you get elevated triglyceride levels?
It’s important to note that triglycerides in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, your body uses them for energy. It’s only when levels get high that they present a problem. Just like cholesterol. Your body also needs cholesterol for cell formation and hormone production. But when levels get abnormally high, that’s when it becomes cause for concern.
There are a number of causes of high triglycerides, but obesity and diabetes are the most common. People who are overweight tend to eat a large amount of simple carbs and sugar, all of which is eventually converted to triglycerides. Binge drinking can also cause spikes in triglyceride levels, as can certain health conditions like kidney disease and thyroid problems, and various medications including steroids and birth control pills.
So there are a number of possibilities as far as what can bring on high triglyceride levels, but most of the time it is simply because you are eating too many carbs and too much sugar. You may also have a genetic predisposition to the problem.
So what does high triglycerides mean?
Are elevated triglycerides cause for alarm? In most cases no. Especially if all of your other blood markers are OK. But it does need to be addressed. Just to give you an idea of how the levels work:
Normal Levels: Anything less than 150
Slightly Elevated: 150-199
Very High: 500 or greater
*Info from the WebMd
So a high concentration of triglycerides means that statistically you are at a higher risk of developing a heart attack or stroke. How high that risk actually is depends on many other factors, including as we mentioned your cholesterol, CRP and homocysteine levels, as well as your medical history, lifestyle, predisposition, etc.
Will I experience any symptoms?
Unfortunately, just like with high cholesterol, you won’t experience any symptoms of high triglycerides. The only way to know is to have a blood test, which is one of the many reasons why a yearly checkup is crucial. The exception to this rule is if it is caused by a genetic condition, in which case you may experience yellowish fatty deposits called xanthomas under your skin.
Even though you won’t have any noticeable symptoms, it’s still important to do whatever you can to remedy the situation so it doesn’t develop into a bigger issue.
How do I treat high triglycerides?
Since it is typically caused by eating too many carbohydrates, you can start by changing your diet. If you are overweight, try to lose some weight. Lower your intake of simple carbs: bread, pasta, white rice, potatoes and obvious sugar sources like cakes, pies, snacks and other junk food. Incorporate regular exercise as well to help with metabolism. If you drink a lot, try to cut back some if you can. Same goes for smoking.
Fish oil has been shown to reduce triglyceride levels, so try to eat more fatty fish or take a high quality supplement. Eat more healthful foods in general, like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
If your triglyceride levels are 500 or higher, you may need to take a drug like Lovaza, but your doctor will be able to determine if that is necessary. As with any medication, you want to avoid the potential side effects if you can.
So now you know what causes high triglycerides and how to treat the problem if it arises. Discuss it with your doctor to see what your options are.