High levels of triglycerides, also known as hypertriglyceridemia, can raise your risk of heart disease, increase your chances of getting type-2 diabetes and it may be a sign of metabolic syndrome. More than one-third of the adults in America have high triglycerides. So, let us learn some more about triglycerides, the reasons why their levels rise, dangers associated with extremely high triglycerides and ways to lower them naturally.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in our blood. These fats are formed from calories that are not consumed immediately and are stored in the fat cells for future use for activities between meals.
When our body needs fuel for physical activities between meals, our body burns triglycerides for energy.
What are normal levels of triglycerides?
If we regularly consume more calories than we expend, our body stores higher levels of triglycerides in the fat cells than usual. You can get your triglyceride levels checked through a simple blood test.
Usually, the blood test that checks your cholesterol levels also checks your triglyceride levels. According to the National Cholesterol Education Program the guidelines for triglyceride levels are:
- Normal: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
- Borderline high: 150 to 199 mg/dL
- High: 200 to 499 mg/dL
- Very high: 500 mg/dL or above
Causes of high triglycerides
There can be many reasons for high triglyceride levels like uncontrolled diabetes, unhealthy lifestyle or genetics.
Though not all obese people have high triglycerides, generally obesity and directly linked with high plasma triglycerides. According to studies obese women have significantly higher plasma levels of VLDL – a lipoprotein with a major triglyceride component (1).
In obese people with high triglycerides, there is increased secretion and impaired clearance of VLDL. This increased secretion is due to increased fat in the liver, and impaired clearance is due to increased plasma levels of apolipoprotein C-III.
Apolipoprotein C-III is a component of VLDL and an inhibitor or lipoprotein lipase. Lipoprotein lipase helps to break down the fats in the form of triglycerides.
When triglycerides are broken down, they are used for energy. This is the reason why triglyceride levels are raised in obese individuals.
Triglycerides store calories that are not immediately used after they are consumed. Later hormones help to release these triglycerides for use as energy.
Hypothyroidism slows down hormone production and the rate at which our body uses calories for fuel. So triglycerides remain in the fat cells.
Hypothyroidism also increases DLD levels by increasing the absorption of cholesterol through the liver, preventing it from eliminating excess cholesterol (2).
3. Poorly controlled diabetes
Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to high levels of glucose and insulin in the body. Insulin plays the role of converting glucose to glycogen and helps to store glycogen in the liver.
When the liver becomes saturated with glycogen, glucose is used to create fatty acids that are released into the bloodstream. Fatty acids are used to develop triglycerides, which contribute to body fat.
Almost 90% of diabetes patients develop metabolic syndrome, which further increases the chances of developing high triglycerides (3).
4. Kidney disease
Kidney disease can raise both LDL levels and triglyceride levels and lower HDL levels in the body (4). Reduces renal function impairs the clearance of triglycerides. Though the kidneys do not clear triglycerides, they are broken down by liver enzymes.
An inhibitor of these liver enzymes is cleared through the kidneys and due to its accumulation; these enzymes can not break down the triglycerides, which then start accumulating.
Increased triglycerides, LDL levels, and lower HDL levels increase the risk of heart disease.
5. Excessive drinking
According to the American Heart Association, very small amounts of alcohol can also cause the triglycerides to rise high. Not only does excessive drinking raise triglycerides, but it also raises blood pressure and leads to cardiovascular disease (5).
When you consume alcohol, it is rapidly absorbed and taken to the liver for metabolism. The liver can not metabolize it fast enough, and this leads to accumulation of fatty acids and raises the levels of triglycerides.
6. High-calorie diet
A high-calorie diet along with sedentary lifestyle can lead to calories being stores. Our body converts excess calories into triglycerides. Foods that are high in saturated fats are also rich sources of triglycerides and bad cholesterol.
Some people have elevated levels of triglycerides because of their genetic predisposition. This condition is known as familial hypertriglyceridemia. This genetic condition occurs in one out of 500 people in America (6).
Certain medications are known to increase triglyceride levels (7) –
- Antipsychotics like clozapine and olanzapine, which are given for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can raise triglyceride levels.
- Diuretics like hydrochlorothiazide, which are usually prescribed for hypertension, can increase triglyceride levels.
- Tamoxifen, which is prescribed for reducing the risk of breast cancer in women, can also increase triglyceride levels.
- Contraceptive pills contain estrogen and can raise triglyceride levels.
- Corticosteroids, used for treating asthma, autoimmune disease, and arthritis, can lead to high triglycerides.
Dangers of high triglycerides level
High triglycerides level can increase the risk of stroke, heart ailments, and metabolic syndrome. Some of the typical risks associated with high levels of triglycerides include –
The pancreas is an essential organ that produces digestive juices that are needed for food absorption. High triglycerides can cause swelling of the pancreas which can lead to severe belly pain, vomiting, and fever.
According to a case study of a 37-old-woman with severe abdominal pain, it was observed that hypertriglyceridemia, if markedly elevated, can lead to pancreatitis(8). The treatment includes weight loss, diet changes and avoiding alcohol.
2. Metabolic syndrome
Elevated triglyceride levels commonly associate with insulin resistance and represent a valuable marker for metabolic syndrome (9).
Metabolic syndrome is associated with many health problems like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglyceride levels, low HDL levels and belly fat. It increases your risk for heart attack, diabetes, and stroke.
3. Increased risk for type-2 diabetes
If you have high triglycerides, you are at a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes (10). Type 2 diabetes affects the whole body and can also lead to loss of vision and feeling in hands and feet.
However, you can lower your chances of diabetes by making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.
4. Higher risk for heart attack
Not all triglycerides are stored in the fat tissues of the body. Some of them travel in the bloodstream as VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein). These VLDL make the blood sludgy and can increase the chances of blockage in the arteries.
The heart attack happens when high amounts of fat deposits build up inside the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the heart muscles (11). In fact, very high levels of triglycerides can increase your risk of having a heart attack by four times.
5. Increased risk for stroke
High triglyceride levels are linked to atherosclerosis, a condition in which substances, like cholesterol, form plaques on the walls of the arteries (12).
If a plaque ruptures, its fragments or blood clots can block the supply of blood to an artery supplying to the brain and can cause a stroke.
According to a study at the University of California, high triglyceride levels have a strong link to stroke development.
6. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
When more than 10% of your liver is replaced with fat, this condition is known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This can cause scarring of the liver, cancer, and even liver failure. Diabetes, obesity and high triglycerides are the most common causes of NAFLD (13).
Liver function tests like ALT and AST can indicate if a person has fatty liver. This condition can cause permanent liver damage and cirrhosis.
7. Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
If your triglyceride levels are more than 200, it increases your risk for peripheral artery disease (14). Excessive triglycerides in the blood lead to deposits on the walls of the arteries of the legs.
This can lead to claudication pain and numbness in the legs. PAD can also increase the risk of infection in legs and feet.
High triglycerides can lead to dementia, especially in the elderly. Dementia leads to gradual loss of brain function that affects memory, thinking, speech and behavior.
Studies have shown that high triglyceride levels can damage blood vessels inside the brain (15) and this can lead to dementia.
Xanthomas is a condition in which fatty deposits develop under the skin (16). Sometimes they are small in size, in other cases, they can be almost 3 inches in diameter.
These orange or yellow color deposits can usually be seen over elbows, knees, hands, ankles, back, and buttocks. When they form over the eyelids, they are called xanthelasmas. They are mostly seen in people with familial triglycemia.
10. Eye complications
Extremely high levels of triglycerides can lead to a condition known as lipemia retinalis. In this condition, the retinal blood vessels develop a pale, milky appearance. This is due to lipid infiltration in the retina.
When a 55-year-old patient with macular degeneration was studied, they discovered that the patient had high serum cholesterol levels and very high levels of triglycerides (1513 mg/dl) (17). Lipid-lowering therapy is essential for such patients.
Some simple dietary and lifestyle changes can be made to lower triglyceride levels.
1. Lose weight
If you are overweight, losing 10 percent of your body weight will help improve your triglyceride levels.
2. Cut sugar intake
According to AHA only 5 percent of your daily calories should come from sugar. So lower your sugar intake and processed foods and sodas, that have hidden sugars in them.
3. Have more fiber
Have more fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to lower your blood triglycerides.
4. Reduce fructose intake
Consuming too much fructose can lead to high triglycerides. Avoid foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. Dried fruits like raisins and dates also have more fructose.
Replace trans-fats with healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet.
6. Reduce alcohol intake
Even a small consumption of alcohol can increase triglyceride levels. AHA recommends that people with high triglycerides should avoid alcohol completely.
If you have high triglycerides, you must exercise around 30 minutes five days of the week. This will help lower your triglyceride levels.
The causes of high triglyceride levels can vary from genetics to hyperthyroidism. This condition that affects one-third of all adults in the US can increase the risk of heart ailments, stroke, and metabolic syndrome. However, some simple lifestyle and dietary changes can help lower the triglyceride levels naturally.