Triglycerides are the major type of fat in the body. They play an essential role in the metabolism process and contain twice the energy of carbohydrates and proteins, being important workings of very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). Triglycerides are also involved in the transportation of fats.
Triglycerides are divided into fatty acids and glycerol in the digestive system, a process known as lipolysis. Triglycerides can be rebuilt after they have been divided. Once this occurs the triglycerides become important components of lipoproteins, which have a range of functions including the delivery of fatty acids to and from the cells.
Various tissues in the body can use the free fatty acids as a supply of energy, and fat cells are able to synthesise and store fats for use at a later date. When the body needs energy a hormone called glucagon is released, which prompts the breakdown of triglycerides by lipase and this contributes to the release of free fatty acids. The brain cannot use fatty acids as a supply of energy and as a result of this the glycerol element of the triglycerides is converted into glucose, which can be used as fuel by the brain.
Triglycerides are essential but high levels are associated with health risks. High degrees of triglycerides increases the risk of atherosclerosis (the process of fatty deposits collecting in the arteries), which in turn increases the threat of strokes and heart disease. Pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, is also linked to elevated levels of triglycerides. It is common for increased levels of triglycerides to occur in tandem with low levels of high density lipoproteins (HDL), which are sometimes known as 'good cholesterol'. HDL is beneficial because it helps to clear LDL (low density lipoprotein) from the blood.
The American Heart Association uses the following measurements to classify triglyceride levels:
- Normal: less than 1.69 mmol/L
- Borderline: between 1.7 and 2.25 mmol/L
- High: between 2.25 and 5.65 mmol/L
- Very high: above 5.65 mmol/L
Reducing and managing triglyceride levels
Elevated levels of triglycerides are linked to an increased risk of potentially life-threatening conditions so it is important to keep an eye on your triglyceride levels.
Lifestyle changes are often recommended for people who have elevated levels of triglycerides, which include adopting a healthy, balanced diet low in fatty and processed foods and high in fresh fish, lean meat, wholegrain foods and fruits and vegetables, and doing cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis. Ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days per week.
Eating oily fish rich in Omega 3 oils on a regular basis can also help to reduce levels of triglycerides. Niacin (high dose vitamin B-3) and statins may also be recommended to bring triglycerides down. Good sources of oily fish include mackerel, salmon, fresh tuna and sardines.
In some cases, fibrates may be used but they are known to cause unpleasant side-effects.
Drinking alcohol on a regular basis can cause increased levels of triglyceride so cutting down may help to bring levels down. If you drink on a regular basis and are unable to control this, ask your doctor for advice. Experts advise a daily intake of no more than 2 units for women and 3-4 units for men, but if you already have elevated levels of triglycerides you may be advised to cut out alcohol altogether.
If you are overweight and you suffer from high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels, you may be advised to lose weight to bring these levels down. The most effective way of losing weight is sticking to a healthy, calorie-controlled diet and exercising on a regular basis. Exercise has a range of health benefits from reducing the threat of heart disease and some forms of cancer to easing stress and decreasing the risk of depression.