Q. My doctor told me my cholesterol and triglycerides are elevated. I have a vague idea what cholesterol is but I’m clueless about tyglycerides. What are they?
A. Triglycerides are a fat in your blood. They are important to maintaining good health. However, if your triglycerides get out of control, you can put your heart at risk. People with high triglycerides usually have lower HDL (good) cholesterol and a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
Calories you take in but don’t burn immediately are converted to triglycerides to supply you with energy later. Your triglycerides level can be too high if you continue to consume more calories than you need. Of course, this causes obesity, too.
Other causes of elevated triglycerides — called hypertriglyceridemia — include diabetes, an underactive thyroid, kidney disease, and drugs such as beta-blockers, some diuretics, estrogen, tamoxifen, steroids and birth control pills.
The common guidelines for triglyceride levels are the following: normal, less than 150 mg/dL; borderline-high, 150 to 199 mg/dL; high, 200 to 499 mg/dL, and very high, 500 mg/dL or more. “Mg/dL” stands for milligram per deciliter.
- The primary remedy for too many triglycerides is changing your habits. Here are some pointers on how to get your triglycerides down:
- Get off the recliner and exercise.
- Cut your caloric intake across the board. This means you have to reduce your consumption of not just fat, but carbohydrates and proteins. Substituting carbohydrates for fats can raise triglyceride levels. People with high triglycerides may have to limit their intake of carbohydrates to no more than 45 to 50 percent of total calories.
- Avoid saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. This is a complex subject. A good starting point is to stay away from foods that come from animals such as meat, dairy and eggs. But there are plant-based foods that are bad for you, too. These include oils from coconuts, cottonseeds and palm kernels.
- Eat oily fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease triglyceride levels
- A small about of alcohol can generate a big increase in triglyceride levels. Cut down as much as you can.
- Quit smoking. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you must know by now that smoking doesn’t just cause respiratory diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema. It kills you in so many ways.
If changing your habits is insufficient to bring your level of triglycerides down, there are medications that can be prescribed. Fenofibrate, gemfibrozil and nicotinic acids often work to reduce triglycerides.
Hypertriglyceridemia can run in families. While high triglycerides don’t usually present noticeable symptoms, people with a family history of very high triglycerides may have visible fatty deposits under the skin.
Elevated triglycerides are often part of a group of conditions called metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is the combination of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, excess weight, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides. This syndrome increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
[In the next installment of The Healthy Geezer, we’ll focus upon cholesterol.]
If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of “How to be a Healthy Geezer” at www.healthygeezer.com.