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What Are The Dangers of High Triglycerides?

Updated on November 3, 2016

Everyone talks about cholesterol, but you don't hear much about its equally important counterpart. Triglycerides make up a significant portion of the fat that occurs naturally in your blood. If yours are too high, you often don't know it until it's too late.

I am not a medical professional. I write from my own personal experience and subsequent research. It is my hope that my experience will prompt you to check your triglycerides, especially if you have one or more of the risk factors outlined below.

The Dangers of High Triglycerides

I found myself in the emergency room at 2 am. I hadn't been to the bathroom in days. I had severe abdominal and lower back pain, which I had, at first, attributed to the constipation. A blood test and CAT scan revealed that my pancreas had grown to block much of my digestive tract. The diagnosis was acute pancreatitis brought on by alcoholism. This was diagnosed despite my repeated protests that I was not a drinker. They assumed I was lying, because they had never seen a case this severe that was not caused by alcohol.

I had been suffering with this, to a lesser degree of severity, for several months. I attributed it to digestive problems. My doctor thought it might be my gall bladder. Neither of us could have been more wrong.

From the emergency room, I was sent straight to intensive care, after being given a generous dose of morphine. And there I lay, mostly unconscious, for nearly a week. When I was awake, I was allowed no food or drink. Not even so much as a few ice chips to wet my throat. Everything I required was supplied intravenously. My wife was told that this would be a good time to start putting my affairs in order. Fortunately, that turned out to be unnecessary.

I'm not sure how I recovered. It's all a blur of blinding pain, mixed with morphine-induced sleep,and my wife prefers not to talk about it. But when I had a follow-up visit with my doctor, following my release, I discovered that my cholesterol was over 1500, and my triglycerides were approaching 5000. I wasn't entirely sure what this meant, so I went about conducting a little research via the internet.

Below are the questions with which I was left, along with the information I was able to dig up on my own.

Triglycerides are lipids, or fats, that are found In your blood stream
Triglycerides are lipids, or fats, that are found In your blood stream

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a kind of fat carried in your blood. They are comprised of two molecules of fatty acid, and one glyceride molecule. Along with HDL and LDL cholesterol, they make up the total lipid (fat) count in your blood.

What Do Triglycerides Do?

Every time you eat, unused calories are converted to triglycerides, and stored in fat cells. Between meals, your body calls upon the stored triglycerides to provide energy. If you typically concume more calories than you can burn, there is a good chance that you may have high triglycerides, also known as hypertriglyceridemia.

Are They the Same as Cholesterol?

Like cholesterol, a certain amount of triglycerides are needed in your blood. But they differ in that triglycerides are used by your body as a source of energy, whereas cholesterol is used to build cells and various types of hormones. Neither is soluble in blood, and they circulate throughout your bloodstream with the assistance of lipoproteins. It should be noted that high levels of cholesterol often go hand in hand with high triglycerides, and both are major risk factors for heart disease and coronary artery disease.

What Are Healthy Triglyceride Levels?

As most people know, your cholesterol should be kept below 200 mg/dl. But where should your triglycerides be? I have come across varying answers to this but, in general, they seem to fall into this range:

  • Normal: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)

  • Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL

  • High: 200-499 mg/dL

  • Very high: 500 mg/dL or above

If yours are high you are at a much greater risk of heart attack, stroke, heart disease, pancreatitis, and other such ailments.

Who Is At Risk?

The most common causes of hypertriglyceridemia are obesity, untreated or poorly controlled diabetes, and excessive consumption of alcohol. Others risk factors include hypothyroidism, kidney disease and, less frequently, genetics. As with many diseases, if you're a smoker, you should quit smoking right now. It won't cause high triglycerides, but as a vasoconstrictor, smoking can quickly make a bad situation worse.

Certain medications may also elevate triglycerides. Among these are Tamoxifen, birth control pills, steroids, beta blockers, diuretics, and estrogen.

Cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels are determined with a simple blood test
Cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels are determined with a simple blood test

How Can I Get Checked?

Triglycerides are usually checked while testing cholesterol levels. All that is required is a quick blood draw. If yours are too high, your doctor should tell you. Mine only mentioned it in passing, so I usually ask for the specific numbers now.

What Treatment Is Available?

The first thing your doctor is likely to tell you is that you need to examine your diet. I have found that a diet designed to control diabetes goes a long way toward lowering triglycerides, as well. In general, the largest contributors for me were carbohydrates, particularly simple carbohydrates.

In the interest of dieting without giving up my favorite sources of carbs, I discovered that multi-grain breads are better for you than whole grain breads. I have also noticed that the darker in color a bread is, the less negative impact it has. This is also true of rice. I choose brown rice over white.

There is a fine line you must walk here, though. In lowering carbs, many people try to eliminate them completely, which can be dangerous. Others tend to go for a more high protein diet, which in many cases also means higher fat.

What About Drugs?

While proper diet and exercise are the preferred course of treatment, sometimes they are not enough to adequately lower your levels. This is particularly true if you are genetically predisposed to having a high lipid count.

There are prescription drugs available if your doctor deems it necessary. There are numerous Statin drugs that target lipids in general.In researching drugs geared specifically toward triglycerides, Niaspan appears to be the most widely prescribed. I'm told it's very effective, but at over a hundred dollars for a 30 day supply, it can be quite costly for those with no prescription insurance.

There are also homeopathic remedies available over the counter.

Can I Treat High Triglycerides Myself?

I currently treat my hypertriglyceridemia withniacin therapy, but this is not a decision to take lightly. High doses of niacin have been associated with some potentially serious side effects, and could interact badly with medications you may already be taking. I would strongly urge you to see your doctor before taking this route.

It is also likely that if your doctor approves this course, he will want to see you periodically to monitor its effectiveness, and check for the more serious side effects, like impaired liver function, and irregular heartbeat.

Educate Yourself!

As I said in the beginning, I am not a doctor and do not offer this information as advice. It is my hope that if you are at risk of hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), or hypertriglyceridemia you will seek the advice of your doctor, and conduct your own research relevant to your specific health concerns. In doing so, you can lessen your chance of pancreatitis, heart disease and stroke while living a longer and healthier life.

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