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Coursing through your bloodstream right now are compounds called lipids, which are fats, oils, hormones, and cholesterol. Some are helpful and necessary. Others aren’t. While HDL and LDL cholesterol get most of the attention when it comes to your lipid profile and how it relates to your risk of heart attack and stroke, you shouldn’t overlook triglycerides and the dangers they can pose. A normal triglyceride level is an important step in preventing heart disease overall.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood. When you eat, calories you don’t burn immediately for energy are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells. In between meals, hormones release triglycerides so you’ll have energy. If you consume more calories than you burn, your triglycerides will build up.
There may also be a genetic component that explains why some people may be inclined to store more calories as triglycerides. High cholesterol can be a hereditary condition, too. You may exercise regularly and eat a low-cholesterol diet and still have high LDL levels, because your genes help shape your lipid profile.
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both lipids. Cholesterol is a substance used to build cell membranes and produce certain hormones. Triglycerides and cholesterol can’t dissolve in water (or blood), so they continue to circulate in your blood. High triglyceride levels are associated with a higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
Triglycerides and Risk
Unlike LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides don’t appear to form plaques that narrow and harden the arteries. In fact, it’s not entirely clear how triglycerides pose a risk to your cardiovascular health. Some health experts believe that high levels of triglycerides may worsen the effects of high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension), and diabetes. All of those conditions are risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Though it’s not well understood how or triglycerides directly affect the health of your arteries, it is generally accepted that a high triglyceride level is a marker of poor cardiovascular health. It may be that high triglycerides signal the presence of other conditions that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. For example, high triglycerides are often present in a person who has metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors, such as a large waist circumference, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poorly controlled blood sugar, and high triglycerides. Having metabolic syndrome means a significantly greater risk of heart attack or stroke. High triglycerides are also associated sometimes with thyroid disease and problems with your kidneys or liver.
Research suggests that women may be at even greater risk than men from high triglycerides. A study out of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that high triglycerides were a stronger predictor of stroke risk in older women than high LDL cholesterol and high total cholesterol. Total cholesterol is a measurement used to gauge cardiovascular health. It is arrived at by adding your LDL and HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels with half of your triglyceride level.
“The bottom line is that postmenopausal women and their physicians need to pay attention to triglyceride levels,” says Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Einstein. “We already know that women with elevated levels of triglycerides face a greater risk for heart disease and heart attacks than men do. This study has underlined the importance of abnormal triglyceride levels by establishing them as an independent risk factor for stroke.”
What Is Considered An Above Normal Triglyceride Level?
Triglycerides are usually checked as part of a standard fasting blood test. They are part of your lipid panel, along with HDL and LDL cholesterol. A healthy or normal triglyceride level is under 100 mg/dL. Borderline high triglycerides are between 150 and 199 mg/dL High triglycerides are between 200 and 499 mg/dL. And a very high triglyceride level is anything at 500 mg/dL or above.
If you’re in the borderline range or higher, you should take steps to move into normal triglyceride levels. This is especially true if you have high LDL or low HDL levels, or you have other heart disease risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, kidney disease, a family history of stroke or heart disease, or a personal history of cardiovascular problems.
How You Can Lower Your Triglycerides
The encouraging thing about reducing triglycerides is that it can often be done without medications or procedures. Healthier lifestyle choices can make a big difference. For example:
- Lose five to 10 percent of your body weight if you are overweight or obese. Belly fat, in particular, is associated with higher triglyceride levels, so slimming down may make a big difference.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If that schedule doesn’t work, try 45 to 60 minutes a day for three or four days a week. Or, try 20 minutes of exercise every day. Your goal should be around 150 minutes of exercise weekly. For best results, do a mix of aerobic, weight training, and balance exercises.
- Limit your alcohol intake to one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks per day if you’re a man. You may need to reduce your alcohol consumption further—or perhaps eliminate alcohol completely—if your triglyceride levels are extremely high.
- Consume more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, are good sources, as are flaxseed, walnuts, and soybeans and soy-based foods.
Getting down to normal triglyceride levels may not guarantee protection against heart disease and stroke, but it’s an important step that you can do starting today.