Like cholesterol, triglycerides are a type of blood fat. Everyone has these fatty acids, but your diet, weight and genetics may make you prone to higher or lower levels. Read on to find out what that means for your health and what you can do about it.
About Triglyceride Levels
The normal range for triglycerides while fasting is less than 150 milligrams per deciliter for all adult men and women, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). While anything under 150 is considered normal, higher levels of triglycerides have been associated with heart disease and stroke, according to the NHLBI.
Health experts break triglyceride levels into various categories of risk. Triglycerides from 150 to 199 milligrams per deciliter are considered borderline high. Triglyceride levels between 200 and 499 are considered high, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Once triglyceride levels hit 500 milligrams per deciliter, they're considered very high.
Peter Mercurio, MD, a cardiologist from Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, notes that triglycerides are a different kind of fat than cholesterol. They're a form of fuel for the body. The link to heart and blood vessel disease isn't as clear-cut for triglycerides as it is for cholesterol. "Too much triglyceride gunks up the blood," he says. "It can cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)."
What Contributes to High Triglycerides?
Numerous things can increase your triglyceride levels —and many are the same things that have been linked to abnormal cholesterol levels, notes the American Heart Association (AHA). For instance, diet appears to play a significant role in triglyceride levels. A diet high in carbohydrates may boost triglyceride levels, the AHA says. A high-carbohydrate diet is considered one in which more than 60 percent of its calories stem from carbohydrates.
Carrying excess weight also seems to up the odds of high triglycerides. A sedentary lifestyle and smoking and drinking too much alcohol also appear to raise triglyceride levels, according to the AHA. In addition, some people have a genetic risk for high triglycerides. And, underlying diseases — such as heart disease or diabetes — also have been associated with elevated triglycerides.
Testing Triglyceride Levels
High triglyceride levels usually cause no symptoms, so you'll likely find out what your triglyceride level is during a routine blood test. For most adults, triglycerides will be measured at the same time that cholesterol is tested. This should happen at least every four to six years, notes the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
However, if you have certain risk factors for heart disease, you may need more frequent testing. These include:
- Unhealthy diet
- Excess weight
- Lack of activity
- Family history of heart disease
- High blood pressure
Ask your doctor if your triglyceride level should be checked more frequently. Keep in mind that to get the most accurate results on your triglyceride level test, you'll need to fast for nine to 12 hours before the test, according to the NLM.
How to Lower Triglyceride Levels
"Triglycerides are fairly sensitive to what you eat and drink, and they respond more promptly to changes than cholesterol does," says Dr. Mercurio. One important change people can make, he says, is to drink less alcohol. That means no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, Dr. Mercurio advises.
Other helpful diet changes include eating fewer meat and dairy products, as well as reducing the amount of carbohydrates you eat, particularly those with added sugars, say Harvard Health Publishing. Getting to a healthy weight is also an important step in reducing triglycerides, notes the NHLBI.
Read more: Foods to Avoid for High Triglycerides
When triglyceride levels are high, other cholesterol numbers are often abnormal. Medication that lowers LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) may also lower triglycerides, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
For those with high or very high levels, Dr. Mercurio says there's a new standardized fish oil medication, called Vascepa (icosapent), available by prescription, specifically for lowering triglycerides.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "High Blood Triglycerides"
- Peter Mercurio, MD, Cardiologist, Northern Westchester Hospital, Mount Kisco, New York
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should You Worry About High Triglycerides?"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Triglycerides Test"
- American Heart Association: "What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean"