You monitor your blood pressure. You watch your weight and cholesterol. Now your cardiologists are telling you that you have to lower your triglycerides as well. Is there no end to the work you have to do to keep your heart healthy? And what exactly are triglycerides and how do you lower them?
First of all, it’s not that difficult to take steps to improve your cardiovascular health, and second, because heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, it’s well worth it to make a little extra effort to gain a lot more years of life.
What Are Triglycerides?
The most common fat in the body, triglycerides are found in the blood. When you consume food, any calories you don’t immediately need are converted to triglycerides (also known as lipids) and stored for later use. Cholesterol, another lipid, is produced by the liver when you eat meat or fish. Cholesterol is important for new cell formation and for healthy functioning of various hormones. Neither triglycerides or cholesterol can be absorbed by the blood, so they are stored in deposits of fat until they are needed, usually around the waist.
Triglycerides are not intrinsically bad for you. You need them to have enough energy to function. It’s only when you have too much that they become a problem for cardiovascular health.
Why Are They Bad for Your Heart?
Triglycerides are critical to maintaining energy in the body, but too much causes a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). This increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. In severe cases, clots can form.
Elevated triglyceride levels also often serve as a marker for other diseases that can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease: type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, and liver or kidney disease. High triglycerides also accompany the condition known as metabolic syndrome. This is a cluster of conditions that impair cardiovascular health: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, too much belly fat, and low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
What Causes High Triglycerides?
The causes of high triglycerides are many, including poor diet and lack of exercise. They can also be caused by obesity, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, excess calorie or alcohol intake, and a genetic predisposition.
How You Can Lower Them
Lifestyle and dietary changes are the first approach to lowering triglycerides, and are often successful. If your tests reveal that your triglycerides are above the normal range, there are several steps you can take before medication. Losing just five or ten pounds can help lower triglycerides. Because extra calories are stored, curbing calorie intake will reduce triglycerides. Sugary foods raise them, while a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids-the kind found in fish, nuts, and seeds-lowers them. Switching out saturated fats found in meat for healthier fats found in plants (olive, canola, and peanut oils), can help, as can limiting alcohol intake.
Finally, increasing exercise levels not only lowers triglycerides but raises your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
If these measures aren’t successful, we will prescribe medications including statins.