Triglycerides are a normal part of the human body that are both produced in the body and consumed as part of a healthy and balanced diet. However, in excess they are linked to an increased risk of some serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.
They naturally circulate around the body in the bloodstream in order to reach the cells that require energy. They must be metabolized into a glycerol and three fatty acid molecules before they can be absorbed and used as a source of energy. In excess, can be stored in body fat to be drawn upon for energy in times when the individual has not recently eaten a meal, but this can also contribute to hypertriglyceridemia.
Hypertriglyceridemia is a term used to refer to excessive levels of triglycerides in the body, such that it becomes a threat to health.
Triglycerides are usually measured as a concentration from a blood sample, which is recorded in mmol/L. There are four different categories of triglyceride levels that correspond to the concentration in the blood and risk of other health conditions. The concentrations are classified as:
Normal: less than 1.7 mmol/L
Borderline high: 1.7 – 2 mmol/L
High: 2 – 6 mmol/L
Very high: more than 6 mmol/L
Blood Tests to Measure Triglycerides
A simple blood test is the most common way to measure the level of triglycerides in the body. A sample of blood is usually taken from the vein in the elbow or the back of the hand, which is sent to a laboratory to measure the content of triglycerides.
As consumption of food prior to the blood sample being drawn can affect the level of triglycerides in the blood, the patient should be advised to fast for 12 hours prior. This helps to lessen variation in the triglyceride level, such as after eating a meal particularly high in fat.
In some cases, several tests on separate occasions may be required to accurately determine the level of triglycerides. This helps to normalize results and is usually called for if the initial result is contrary to what was expected or if the results are particularly worrying.
Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Raised triglyceride levels are widely accepted to be linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and is the primary reason that triglycerides are a serious concern.
This is thought to be due to triglycerides lowering the level of HDL (good) cholesterol, which creates ideal conditions for the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. As a result, narrowing of the blood vessels can occur and there is an associated increased risk of clot formation.
Management of High Triglycerides
Patients with borderline high, high or very high triglyceride levels should be advised to make necessary lifestyle changes in order to decrease the risk of related health conditions.
Lifestyle recommendations may include:
- Diet: Eat less and avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. Opting for foods that are rich in fiber is preferable.
- Exercise: Keep active and aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
- Lifestyle: Moderate alcohol intake and quit smoking if possible. If there are concurrent health conditions, adequate management of these should be sought.
In some cases, lifestyle changes alone are not enough to manage high triglyceride level and pharmacological management may be beneficial. However, even when medications are prescribed it is important that patients are aware of the benefits of lifestyle changes and these are not disregarded.