The human body is truly miraculous. It’s designed with several mechanisms to ensure survival. As a result, humanity still stands strong. Despite hundreds of thousands of years of adversity — from droughts to famine to war — humans have prevailed. One of these biological survival mechanisms is fat storage. Our bodies use food as a source of energy. They are also designed to store excess energy as fat to use for fuel later. The most common way energy is stored in the body is through triglycerides.
Triglycerides play a vital role in how the body works, and humans have relied on them since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, this protective mechanism has backfired in this modern society of unlimited access. Humans are storing way too much fat, and the results are disastrous.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the human body. They are composed of three fatty acid chains attached to a sugar alcohol molecule called glycerol.
This type of fat is a vital source of energy for the body. Any excess triglycerides that are not immediately used are stored as fat to be accessed for energy later. When the body needs energy between meals, hormones tell the fat cells to release triglycerides into the bloodstream.
These fatty particles are unable to move through the blood by themselves. Instead, they combine with cholesterol and protein to form very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL).
Where do triglycerides come from?
Triglycerides show up in the body in one of two ways. They are either made in the body or consumed in the diet through meat, dairy products, and other fats.
The liver produces triglycerides in response to eating more food than our body needs. For example, when we drink a sugary coffee beverage or eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, the unused calories are converted to triglycerides. Then, the liver releases them in VLDLs into the bloodstream, which gets delivered and stored in fat cells.
Triglycerides that we eat are too large to be absorbed directly. As a result, they are broken down and absorbed through the small intestine. They are then packaged together with cholesterol, protein, and other fats into a lipoprotein called chylomicrons.
What’s the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?
Many people understandably confuse cholesterol and triglycerides. After all, both are part of the lipid profile that the doctor orders at an annual physical. However, while the two are buddies, hanging out together as they circulate the body in their lipoprotein vehicles, they are also very different.
Both cholesterol and triglycerides can be consumed through food or made in the liver. The liver can produce all of the cholesterol needed by the body. However, triglycerides can only be made due to excess intake of food or calories.
While the primary purpose of triglycerides is to provide energy to the body, cholesterol helps the body produce essential hormones, build cell walls, and produce bile for the digestion of food.
Triglycerides and the heart
Triglycerides are not inherently evil. In fact, they serve an essential role in the body’s healthy functioning. However, too many are dangerous for health.
Obesity is a significant risk factor for nearly all diseases, and triglycerides are the driver of fat storage. Approximately 60-70 percent of overweight patients have high triglyceride levels. Excess weight, especially visceral fat carried around the midsection, is associated with cardiovascular disease.
Further, studies have found that patients with coronary artery disease who have elevated triglycerides are at a much higher risk of death. For example, one study found that when compared to patients with low triglycerides, those with the highest levels had close to 70 percent greater risk of death over the two-decade study.
Why are my triglycerides high?
There are numerous reasons why someone might have elevated triglycerides, and most of them relate to lifestyle. For example, poor diet, sedentary behavior, smoking, and alcohol use contribute to poor lipid management.
In addition to lifestyle factors, some chronic illnesses also impact your levels. Diabetes, kidney disease, and hypothyroidism elevate fats in the blood in some patients.
There are also some lesser-known causes of hyperlipidemia that even your doctor may be unaware of. For example, specific nutritional deficiencies such as zinc or vitamin D can raise triglyceride levels. Additionally, studies have found that chronic inflammatory conditions may impact lipid production.
9 ways to lower triglycerides
While it’s evident that food can significantly impact triglycerides, multiple other factors can also affect lipids. Below are nine ways to regulate your levels.
1. Eliminate sugar and refined grains
Diet is the single most modifiable risk factor for high triglycerides. Sugar and refined carbs provide high calories with no return on investment. These excess calories get turned into triglycerides and stored as fat.
One of the major sources of sugar consumption in the United States is sugar-sweetened beverages. A 2020 study found that individuals who regularly consumed sugary drinks were over 50 percent more likely to have high triglycerides than those who refrained from them.
It’s not just adults that need to worry about triglyceride levels. A 2014 study found that a diet high in sugar significantly increased triglyceride levels for children 7-12 years old.
2. Consider your carbs
The right carbohydrates are an essential source of energy, vitamins, and minerals for the body. However, even healthy carbs can increase triglyceride levels if eaten in excess. As a result, studies have linked diets low in carbohydrates to decreased levels of triglycerides.
When considering your diet, limit your carbohydrate intake to complex carbs with lots of fiber. Fiber slows the absorption of food, which decreases triglyceride levels. Fiber also makes you feel full longer, thus reducing your chance of overeating.
3. Increase your intake of healthy fats
It almost seems counterintuitive to eat fat in an attempt to lower fat. However, dietary fat intake does not influence the body’s weight the way we were taught to believe. Adding healthy fats into your diet may reduce triglyceride levels and help you shed unwanted pounds.
One such addition of healthy fats is fish. Studies have found that fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel can lower triglyceride levels. A 2019 study found that increasing omega-3 fatty acids can reduce triglyceride levels by as much as 30 percent in most people. Other healthy fats to add to your diet include nuts, seeds, organic grass-fed meat, and eggs.
4. Consider adding organ meat to your diet
The health benefits of organ meats are numerous. Packed with nutrients and antioxidants, organ meats are highly nutritious.
More importantly, organ meats are high in vitamin B3, or niacin. Beef liver is one of the best natural sources of niacin, with a three-ounce serving providing more than 100 percent of the daily recommended allowance for women.
Niacin has been shown to significantly lower triglycerides. In fact, one study found that high-dose niacin supplementation can lower triglycerides by as much as 50 percent.
5. Cut out alcohol (or limit it drastically)
Alcoholic beverages are packed with sugars and carbohydrates. As these simple sugars are easy to digest, they quickly make their way to the bloodstream, where they are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.
Research shows that drinking alcohol, even in small amounts, raises triglycerides. Additionally, alcohol lowers inhibitions, making it more likely that you will snack on unhealthy foods while you drink.
6. Get your sleep
Sleep is restorative to the health of your body. While you are in dreamland, your body is busy repairing cells, making hormones, lowering blood pressure, and slowing the heart rate.
Sleep has also been shown to impact triglyceride levels. For example, a 2018 study found that sleeping more than 10 hours a night was linked to elevated triglycerides in both men and women. Aim for eight to nine hours of quality sleep each night to reduce your risk of high triglycerides.
7. Check your medications (and aim to eliminate them)
While medications are sometimes necessary, they always come with side effects. Many people don’t realize that pharmaceutical drugs can raise triglyceride levels. For example, many beta-blockers used to lower blood pressure inadvertently raise triglyceride levels. Other medications with the same effect include steroids, diuretics, estrogen, and immunosuppressants.
8. Watch your stress
Stress impacts every aspect of health, including triglyceride levels. Multiple studies have found a link between psychological stress and lipid profiles.
While the mechanisms by which stress raises triglyceride levels are unclear, some scientists suspect that hormones play a role. Others believe that chronic stress leads to inflammation, which slows the body’s ability to clear fats from the blood. Either way, stress reduction techniques are likely to impact triglyceride levels in the blood significantly.
9. Get moving (preferably outside)
We know that exercise is essential for our health, yet sometimes we don’t move as much as we should. Exercise has been proven time and time again to lower triglycerides.
While any exercise is beneficial, some literature points to short bursts of high-intensity workouts as more valuable than moderate exercise for lipid levels. Other studies have found that strength training can improve triglyceride levels.
Don’t be the one in four
Approximately one out of every four adults in the United States has high triglyceride levels, putting them at significant risk for heart disease and death. While this number is staggering, you don’t have to be just another statistic. Thankfully, you are now equipped with the tools necessary to keep your triglyceride levels in check.
Intentional lifestyle changes have an incredible impact on heart health. Consider changing your diet to incorporate more heart-healthy food, eliminate processed dairy and fats, and prioritize your wellbeing. By making small lifestyle changes, you can live a long, healthy life and achieve your 100 Year Heart.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD