What are triglycerides? Is this a serious problem?
Unlike "cholesterol," the term "triglyceride" has yet to become a common word, although it is rapidly becoming popular as more and more people are become increasingly aware about health concerns. Cholesterol counts are only half the story -20 percent of heart attacks happen to people with cholesterol levels lower than 200. The fact is, you need to measure triglycerides.
What is the difference between cholesterol and triglycerides? Judith Ashley, Ph.D., R.D., a research nutritionist with the Division of Clinical Nutrition, Department of Medicine,
University of California at , explains: "While cholesterol and triglycerides are both fats, cholesterol, which is used for hormones and cell membranes, has no calorie or energy value; triglycerides, whose main function is to provide energy to the body, do. Initial research shows that triglyceride levels might be a more significant risk factor for heart disease in women than in men." Los Angeles
Like cholesterol, triglycerides are valuated through blood plasma tests administered in the morning succeeding an overnight fast.
Triglycerides are the chemical form in which most fats exist in food, the body and blood plasma, explains Denise Rector, R.D., associate director of community programs at the American Heart Association. Calories that aren't utilized by our tissues are turned into to triglycerides and carried to fat cells for storage. Hormones then release the triglycerides throughout the day to give us energy.
About 5 -10 percent of adults have mildly elevated triglyceride levels. With normal blood cholesterol levels, these mild elevations don't necessarily increase the risk of heart problems. A high triglyceride level, however, is a red flag because it often accompanies high total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels (low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol, which accumulates on the inner walls of the arteries), and a low HDL-cholesterol count (high-density lipoprotein, believed to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's passed from the body).
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Washington, DC, states that a blood triglyceride level of up to 250 milligrams per deciliter of blood is normal and does not pose worry; between 250 and 500 milligrams is considered marginal and warrants a search for an underlying cause (alcohol abuse, liver disease, medications or undetected diabetes). This level often responds to dietary modification. Levels above 500 are clearly high and may warrant drug treatment.
The first symptom of very high triglyceride levels is commonly angina-a tightness, heaviness, or pain in the chest that commonly takes place during exercise or heavy physical activity and is relieved by rest. Pain sometimes radiates into your back, left shoulder or arms.
Triglyceride levels of 1,000 milligrams or more greatly increase the risk of developing pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. A less painful but troublesome side effect of exceedingly high triglyceride levels is the formation of fat-filled deposits in the skin, mainly on the back and buttocks, which erupt like acne and take some weeks to clear up.
According to Michael J. Hogan, M.D, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter in
, triglyceride levels rise naturally with age. Elevated levels are also caused by being overweight; excess calories, especially those from sugar and alcohol; certain medications, including contraceptives and diuretics; and illnesses like diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and kidney and liver disease. Heredity may also be a factor in some forms of high triglyceride levels. Rochester, Minnesota
Dr. Hogan suggests several ways to lower a high triglyceride level or maintain a healthfully low level:
■ Lose weight. This is often enough to lower mildly elevated levels to normal.
■ Decrease cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams daily, the recommendation set by the American Heart Association.
■ Engage in aerobic exercise regularly- at least 30 minutes three times a week. Exercise also raises your HDLs.
■ Eat less sugar and foods containing it.
■ Avoid alcoholic beverages. Some people are particularly sensitive to alcohol's ability to increase the liver's production of triglycerides.
■ Limit total fat intake to less than 30 percent of total calories.