Triglycerides are a kind of fat, the most common type in the body. Triglycerides can come directly from foods, such as oils, butter, and other fats, and they can be created by a person’s body when that individual consumes more calories than his or her body needs as a way of storing those surplus calories.
Triglycerides are often talked about in conjunction with another substance: cholesterol. This fat-like, waxy substance is in all cells of the body. The body manufactures all the cholesterol it requires to produce vitamin D, hormones, and substances that aid digestion. Cholesterol is also obtained from a number of foods that are derived from animals.
Both triglycerides and cholesterol are carried through the bloodstream by lipoproteins, which are composed of fat and proteins.
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What are the Types of Lipoproteins?
Three major types of lipoproteins found in the body are very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL):
- VLDL carries triglycerides to tissues in the body. It is sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol” along with LDL. VLDL can cause a buildup in the arteries of plaque, which is composed of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances. This buildup, known as atherosclerosis, can narrow the arteries and impair blood flow to organs in the body. This can cause coronary artery disease and other heart diseases.
- LDL functions as a carrier to bring cholesterol to the cells in the body. It is often referred to as “bad cholesterol” because high LDL levels increase a person’s risk for stroke and heart disease. This is because, like VLDL, too much LDL can cause atherosclerosis.
- HDL carries cholesterol to the liver. The liver can then enable the cholesterol to be eliminated from the body. HDL is often called “good cholesterol”, and high HDL levels can decrease a person’s risk for stroke and heart disease.
Factors Leading to High Levels of Triglycerides & Cholesterol
There are several factors that can cause high triglycerides or increase a person’s risk of developing high triglycerides. These include:
- Frequently eating more calories than one’s body uses
- Being obese or overweight
- Some medications
- Certain medical conditions, such as thyroid, liver, or kidney diseases or inadequately controlled type 2 diabetes
- Smoking cigarettes
- Drinking alcohol excessively
There are also multiple factors that can lead to high cholesterol or increase the risk of developing high cholesterol. These include:
- High-fat diet, especially eating a lot of saturated fat and/or trans fat
- Inactive lifestyle
- Smoking cigarettes
- Being obese or overweight
- Being older
Hyperlipidemia is a term for elevated blood levels of fats. It includes increased cholesterol and/or triglycerides. One concerning element of hyperlipidemia is that many times this condition is asymptomatic, meaning that there are often no signs to the individual that anything is wrong. However, behind the scenes, hyperlipidemia can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease, and peripheral vascular disease, which can then prompt a heart attack, stroke, and/or other problems. This is why there are guidelines of when individuals should be screened for hyperlipidemia, which is done through blood tests.
High Triglycerides and Alcohol Use
Alcohol contains a lot of sugar and calories, and thus can elevate triglycerides in the body. Consuming large amounts of alcohol can increase the release of VLDL, increase the flow of free fatty acids to the liver from fat tissue, and impede the body’s ability to break down fat. In addition to raising triglyceride levels in the blood, overindulging in alcohol is linked to alcoholic fatty liver disease, pancreatitis, and cardiovascular disease.
There have been conflicting findings regarding whether light use of alcohol may be beneficial to the cardiovascular system. For instance, one meta-analysis (a study that analyzes results from multiple studies) found that individuals with low consumption of alcohol and no episodes of drinking heavily had a lower risk of ischemic heart disease than those who never drank, those who occasionally drank heavily, and those who chronically drank heavily. Yet, another more recent meta-analysis found that, although the overall analysis showed there was a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease for individuals with low consumption of alcohol, this correlation was not present in better quality studies, studies that controlled for heart health, or studies on individuals younger than 56. Thus, the connection some studies have found between light alcohol use and cardiovascular health may actually be due to factors other than light consumption of alcohol.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that if you already drink alcohol, you should drink in moderation. However, they advise that if you don’t already, you should not start, as drinking alcohol increases the risk of several health problems. The AHA asserts that, although there may be some cardiovascular benefits from alcohol consumption which should be further researched, they do not currently recommend drinking alcohol to obtain these possible benefits. Rather, they recommend consulting with a doctor about improving your cholesterol and blood pressure, exercising, eating healthy, and controlling your weight.
Even if there was clear evidence that light alcohol use was beneficial, one of the hallmarks of an alcohol use disorder is being unable to control one’s alcohol use. Thus, it is always advised that individuals with an AUD or in recovery from an AUD completely abstain from alcohol.
Lifestyle changes that can help lower triglycerides include:
- Regular physical activity
- Losing weight
- Staying away from refined carbohydrates and sugar
- Decreasing or stopping alcohol use
- Eating healthier fats, such as fats from plants and fish
The only way for an individual to determine if their triglycerides and/or cholesterol levels are too high is to have their levels checked through a blood test.
Any adult who has never had their cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked, or who has not had them checked in several years, should discuss with a health care professional whether a screening for lipid disorders is appropriate for them.
Additionally, anyone who finds that their use of alcohol is causing them problems or otherwise interfering with their ability to function normally should see a health care professional that can evaluate them for an alcohol use disorder. Addiction is a chronic disease that, if left unaddressed, can result in disability or death. Research-based treatment for addiction can help individuals learn to manage their alcohol use disorder and avoid relapse.