Triglycerides: Why do they matter?
Triglycerides: Why do they matter?
If you've been keeping an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, there's something else you might need to monitor: your triglycerides. Having a high level of triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) in your blood, can increase your risk of heart disease. However, the same lifestyle choices that promote overall health can help lower your triglycerides, too.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn't need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, particularly "easy" calories like carbohydrates and fats, you may have high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia).
What's considered normal?
A simple blood test can reveal whether your triglycerides fall into a healthy range.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that a triglyceride level of 100 mg/dL (1.1 mmol/L) or lower is considered "optimal." The AHA says this optimal level would improve your heart health. However, the AHA doesn't recommend drug treatment to reach this level. Instead, for those trying to lower their triglycerides to this level, lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss and physical activity are encouraged. That's because triglycerides usually respond well to dietary and lifestyle changes.
Your doctor will usually check for high triglycerides as part of a cholesterol test (sometimes called a lipid panel or lipid profile). You'll have to fast for nine to 12 hours before blood can be drawn for an accurate triglyceride measurement.
What's the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are separate types of lipids that circulate in your blood. Triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy, and cholesterol is used to build cells and certain hormones. Because triglycerides and cholesterol can't dissolve in blood, they circulate throughout your body with the help of proteins that transport the lipids (lipoproteins).
Why do high triglycerides matter?
Although it's unclear how, high triglycerides may contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls (atherosclerosis) — which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease.
High triglycerides are often a sign of other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke as well, including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes too much fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Sometimes high triglycerides are a sign of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), liver or kidney disease, or rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat to energy. High triglycerides could also be a side effect of taking medications such as beta blockers, birth control pills, diuretics, steroids or the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
What's the best way to lower triglycerides?
Healthy lifestyle choices are key.
It's also important to control diabetes and high blood pressure if you have high triglycerides and one of these conditions.
What about medication?
If healthy lifestyle changes aren't enough to control high triglycerides, your doctor may recommend medications that can help further lower your triglycerides. Usually, the focus of therapy is to lower high levels of the "bad" cholesterol (LDL cholesterol), before addressing high triglyceride levels. Medications to treat high cholesterol include:
If your doctor prescribes medication to lower your triglycerides, take the medication as prescribed. And remember the significance of the healthy lifestyle changes you've made. Medications can help — but lifestyle matters, too.
Last Updated: 2012-09-28
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