Triglycerides: The fatal fat

Here’s one component in your blood stream that can wreak havoc if allowed to increase

Burger

Because of the increasing incidence of heart attacks, everyone now has an eye on their cholesterol.

However, we are all blissfully unaware of another fat that is coursing through our body, threatening our heart. That fat is triglyceride.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a form of fat stored in the body. Our body digests the food we eat and the liver converts the fats in the food to triglycerides. These are then released into the blood stream and are used to provide energy.

The additional calories we consume get converted into triglycerides, increasing their levels in our body and making us prone to heart disease.

Normal triglyceride levels are below 150mg/dL and anything above that requires lifestyle intervention. If the levels go beyond 200mg/dL, they pose a serious risk of developing diabetes and heart conditions.

Why too much of it is bad

Excess triglycerides lead to:

Cardiac diseases

When triglycerides in the blood are high, they form a layer on the inner walls of your artery. This fatty buildup in the heart is called plaque, and it narrows the blood vessels.

A diet high in oily and refined food, rich in saturated fat can even block your blood vessels completely. This total blockage causes restricted or no blood flow to other parts of the body and tissues in the body begin to die. Depending on which blood vessel is blocked, it can lead to a heart attack or paralysis.

Diabetes

One of the major causes of high triglycerides is a diet high in simple carbohydrates, sugar and refined foods, all of which get easily converted to triglycerides.

According to the American Journal of Nutrition, higher levels of triglycerides lead to an increase in the waist and hip circumference, which is a precursor to diabetes.

For a person with diabetes, a high triglyceride level implies poor control of blood sugar and an increased risk for diabetic complications.

Pancreatitis

When triglyceride levels in your body exceed 1000mg/dL, they obstruct the tiny blood vessels leading to tissue death and excess acid production in the body. This local damage produces an enzyme [pancreatic lipase] that breaks down triglycerides to free fatty acids and glycerol.

When the fats are broken down, it results in increased free radicals in the body, particularly in the pancreas. This causes inflammation of the pancreas also known as pancreatitis.

Xanthomas

These are pin-head yellow bumps that occur mostly on the back, buttocks, chest, elbows, knees and heels. Other common sites are just below the eye or on the upper eye-lid. These erupt when triglycerides levels are constantly high [well above 1000mg/dL].

Xanthomas are caused by accumulation of excess fat and disappear gradually when the triglyceride levels drop.

Other problems

Triglyceride levels greater than 4000mg/dL affect the eyes—the blood vessels in the eyes get a pale pink, milky appearance. If this condition persists, it affects vision leading to blindness. Excess triglycerides in the body can even lead to memory loss, dementia, and depression.

How to check triglycerides

A simple blood test done after 12 – 14 hours of fasting helps determine your triglyceride levels. This test is usually done as part of the lipid profile, which also provides other values such as total cholesterol levels, HDL and LDL levels.

Beware of these

The following factors can cause your triglyceride levels to shoot up:

  • Diet: Consuming excess refined sugar or flour and alcohol.
  • Age: Triglyceride levels increase with age.
  • Medications: Birth control pills, steroids, and diuretics can cause your triglyceride levels to rise.
  • Medical conditions: Diabetes, kidney diseases and hypothyroidism.
  • Heredity: Genetically, this condition can run in the family.

Tame the triglycerides

To keep your triglyceride levels down, The Harvard Heart Letter suggests…

Keep fat away: Cut out saturated fats such as full fat milk, cheese, butter and red meats from your diet. Opt for skimmed milk and white meat instead.

Trans fats found in deep fried snacks and commercially prepared foods are equal culprits and are best avoided till your lipid levels are in control.

Swap your carbs: Replace the refined flour, sugar and fruit juices with whole grains and fruits. Whole grains are dense in fibre, which binds with the bad fat, helping the body throw it out.

Include essential fatty acids: Omega-3 fats in fish or fish oil supplements can significantly lower triglycerides.

Nuts like almonds and walnuts are also good sources of essential fatty acids and they counter the effect of free radicals and keep the heart healthy.

Get moving: Exercise is a sure-fire way to reduce your triglyceride levels. Aerobic exercises are extremely heart friendly—they pump up your heart rate, boost HDL, produce endorphins [feel-good hormones] and help you maintain weight.

Quit smoking: Nicotine in cigarettes has a very harmful effect on your heart. It constricts the blood vessels and can strain the heart. Worse, it significantly increases your triglyceride levels.

Watch your alcohol intake: Alcohol increases production of triglycerides by the liver and reduces fat clearance from the blood, especially if you are a ‘responder’.

This implies that your triglyceride levels dramatically increase after alcohol intake. To test if you are a responder, refrain from alcohol for three weeks and check the effect it has on your triglyceride levels.

Excess alert

If your triglyceride levels are very high, just lifestyle modifications may not help and your doctor may prescribe medications.

Niacin: This increases the diameter of the blood vessels [vasodilators], which improves the blood flow to the heart. However, do not take over-the-counter niacin, as it can interact with other medications and can cause dangerous side effects.

Statins: These prevent the action of the enzyme that converts fats to cholesterol. Statins are prescribed individually or as a combination of a statin and niacin or fibrates. Statins can cause side effects like muscle pain, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation.

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