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Take Heart Articles
Understanding triglycerides
03/29/2006
Triglycerides…what exactly are they and how can unhealthy levels of this mysterious substance increase your risk of a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), triglycerides are the chemical form in which most fat exists in food and in the body. They’re also present in the blood, much like cholesterol.

“In simple terms, triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood, which mainly comes from the carbohydrates you eat. They also indicate how your body processes, or metabolizes, the sugars,” explains Palmetto Health Heart Hospital cardiologist Dr. Joe Hollins. “Excess triglycerides are linked with coronary artery disease, which often leads to heart attacks.”

Everyone has triglycerides in their blood. Calories that are not immediately used as energy are turned into triglycerides and sent to fat cells for storage. They are released throughout the day to fuel the body and provide energy. It’s normal for triglyceride levels to fluctuate during the day. For a person with a healthy pancreas who is not overweight, the number of triglycerides increases naturally after a meal. A normal triglyceride level is any number less than 150 mg/dL. Like cholesterol, triglyceride levels can be determined by a simple blood test.

“Triglycerides are measured in a Standard Lipid Profile (SLP), along with cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). However, accurate measurements can only be made after a night of fasting,” says Dr. Hollins.

If triglyceride levels are found to be more than 150 md/dL, this indicates the body is not using sugars efficiently and is a cause for concern. What causes triglycerides to be elevated?

“Many disorders can affect a person’s triglyceride level,” Dr. Hollins says. “Excess abdominal fat (metabolic syndrome) and diabetes are associated with elevated triglycerides. Fortunately, there are many things people can do to get their triglyceride level back to normal and reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.”

Here’s what the American Heart Association recommends:

• If you’re overweight, cut down on calories to reach your ideal body weight.

• Reduce saturated fats and cholesterol, but especially carbohydrates.

• Reduce alcohol intake.

• Trade hamburgers for fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and tuna. Walnuts and almonds are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as well.

• Substitute monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—such as those found in canola oil and olive oil—for saturated fats.

• Exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week, if possible.

Dr. Hollins has another suggestion. “Taking a fish oil capsule provides you with healthy omega-3 fatty acids your body needs. Also if you have high triglycerides, avoid that glass of red wine with dinner; it will cause your triglyceride level to take a jump.” Also, he recommends controlling high blood pressure, and smoking cessation.

If such changes do not lower triglyceride levels, your doctor may prescribe drugs to control it medically.

“You must watch out for the deadly triad of low HDL, small-dense LDL and high triglycerides,” says Dr. Hollins.

“These are the classic indicators of metabolic syndrome that can result in artery blockage, putting you at a much greater risk of a heart attack.”