Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. Most of your body's fat is stored as triglycerides.
Your doctor has probably tested your blood for cholesterol at various times. This lipid, or fat, test measures your total cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and your triglycerides. Your triglyceride level can tell your doctor a lot about your health.
Sources of Triglycerides
Food is one source of triglycerides. Your liver also produces them. If you eat extra calories-especially carbohydrates-your liver increases the production of triglycerides. The excess triglycerides that you consume-or that your body creates-are stored in fat cells for later use. When they're needed, your body releases them as fatty acids, which fuel body movement, create heat, and provide energy for body processes.
What is a Healthy Triglyceride Level?
For good health, your triglyceride level should be less than 150 mg/dL, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Border-line high levels are 150 to 199 mg/dL; high is 200 to 499 mg/dL; and very high is 500 mg/dL and greater.
Health Conditions and Risks Associated with High Triglycerides
Triglycerides and other fats in your blood travel via special carriers called lipoproteins. A high triglyceride level can be cause for concern because some lipoproteins that are rich in triglycerides also contain cholesterol. This can lead to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) in people with high triglycerides. A person with high triglycerides often has other risk factors for heart disease, such as a low HDL level or diabetes. Very high levels of triglycerides are associated with inflammation of the pancreas. People who are overweight or obese frequently have higher than normal levels of triglycerides. All these conditions may increase your risk for developing heart disease or of having a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes may help you manage your triglyceride levels and other risk factors for heart disease. Get regular exercise, and if you're overweight, lose weight. Making the following adjustments to your diet also may help:
- Consume less saturated fat.
- Limit fat calories to less than 30 percent of your total caloric intake.
- Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats, found in fish, play a role in helping keep triglycerides down.
- Get 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day.
- Cut back on alcohol. Talk with your doctor about how much, if any, alcohol you should consume.
If exercise and changes in your diet don't lower your triglyceride level, your doctor may recommend medication.
Triglycerides are the chemical form taken by most of the fat in our bodies and our diet, and they're important because they provide energy the body needs. The fats, carbohydrates, and proteins we eat are converted in the body into simple triglyceride molecules and repackaged with special proteins called lipoproteins, which ferry the triglycerides to the cells. Blood triglyceride levels spike right after we eat, when these triglyceride/lipoprotein packages get dumped into the bloodstream. Levels drop over the next few hours as the triglycerides are taken up and used for energy. Those not needed immediately are transported to fat cells for storage.
Excessive triglycerides are not good for the arteries. Research has found links between high triglyceride levels and a high risk of stroke and heart disease, especially in postmenopausal women.
Some people have an inherited predisposition to high triglycerides. Other contributing factors are obesity, excessive alcohol use, a diet high in saturated fats, and various medical conditions, such as poorly controlled diabetes, low thyroid hormone, or chronic kidney or liver disease. Triglyceride levels can also be raised by certain medications, including prednisone, estrogens used in oral contraceptives or hormone therapy, thiazide diuretics, isotretinoin (Accutane), tamoxifen, and some beta blockers.
It makes sense to try to lower triglycerides to normal levels, that is, below 150 milligrams per deciliter. If there are medical reasons for your high triglycerides, you'll need to work with your clinician to address them, possibly with medications. If not, concentrate on lifestyle strategies, including a diet that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Also, get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity exercise most days, and keep your alcohol intake to a minimum.
If lifestyle changes don't work, or if your triglyceride level is very high, you may need to take a medication, such as niacin, gemfibrozil (Lopid, generic), or fenofibrate (Antara, TriCor, others).