Triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, are an important source of energy. However, triglyceride levels can be too high (a condition called hypertriglyceridemia), and this can increase an individual's risk for pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), heart disease, and other serious problems. The diagnosis of hypertriglyceridemia is based on fasting triglyceride levels, and divided into three categories: mild (150-199 mg/dL), moderate (200-499 mg/dL) and severe (>500 mg/dL). Triglycerides of > 1000 mg/dL is considered a major risk for pancreatitis. 

Because mild to moderate high triglycerides do not create any warning signs, it's important to be proactive about your health, especially if you are at risk for this condition. Severe triglycerides may cause abdominal pain that radiates to the back, a sign of possible pancreatitis requiring an urgent medical assessment. 

How do high triglycerides affect the body?

Doctors have noted a link between high levels of triglycerides and an increased risk for heart disease. This is not necessarily a direct link, because triglycerides are not the cause of the plaque that leads to heart disease or stroke. But they do contribute, as the particles that contain the fats can add to plaque formation, because they contain cholesterol.

That said, high levels of triglycerides are often connected with other risk factors. Metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of risk factors for both cardiovascular disease and diabetes, includes high levels of triglycerides as one of its factors.

So, do the triglycerides actually affect the body? The answer is yes. People whose levels are very high are at risk for pancreatitis. This inflammation of the pancreas can lead to digestive complaints and stomach pain and, eventually, cause diabetes.

Who is at risk?

In most people, triglyceride levels increase with age. Other risks include:

  • Non fasting sample (after meals) 
  • Unhealthy lifestyle factors, like weight or sedentary lifestyle
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Medications, like estrogen or beta-blockers, linked to the condition
  • Other medical conditions, like type 2 diabetes
  • Genetic conditions, such as familial hypertriglyceridemia (occurs in 1% of the population) 

Because this condition causes no noticeable symptoms if mild to moderate, the best way to test your levels is with a fasting blood test, called a lipid panel. This is recommended every five years for most adults and more often for those in high-risk categories.

How to lower triglycerides?

Because of the risk they represent, if you have high levels of triglycerides, then you need to find ways to lower triglycerides in your body. Your goal should be to lower triglycerides to a level below 500 mg/dL to reduce your risk of pancreatitis and other conditions.The initial step in management of high triglycerides is lifestyle changes; a combination of diet modification and drug therapy may also be considered. 

More exercise and a diet that is low in saturated fats and sugars will help. Your doctor will help you adjust your diet as you work to lower your triglyceride levels.

Next, you may need to take medications to help. Medications include fibrates, niacin, or omega-3 fatty acids. In patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia, a fibrate should be used as a first-line agent. Sometimes a statin, a drug used to lower LDL cholesterol levels, can help decrease triglycerides. These drugs should be prescribed and monitored by your healthcare provider. 

While medications can help and are sometimes needed, lifestyle changes are always the healthier way to treat triglyceride problems. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of medications and the way you can change your lifestyle to support healthier triglyceride levels. In the end, you will improve many areas of your life, from your weight to your cholesterol levels, with this attention to your lifestyle choices.

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