Why Triglycerides Are a Major Player in Heart Disease

Omega-3s May Help

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

While much attention has been devoted to high cholesterol, new research reveals that often the biggest driver in heart disease risk and diabetes is high triglyceride levels. Professor Anding reveals why you should monitor your triglycerides.

Triglyceride test tube over test sheet
Although debated within the medical field for three decades, elevated triglycerides are strongly proving to be a risk factor indicating heart disease. Photo By Jarun Ontakrai / Shutterstock

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. It is not uncommon for people to have high triglycerides with poorly controlled diabetes.

One reason triglycerides are now emerging on the scene as a risk factor for heart disease is due to the inverse relationship between triglycerides and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). The higher the level of triglycerides in your blood, the lower your HDL. 

According to Professor Anding, HDL is the “good cholesterol.” HDL removes other forms of cholesterol from your blood supply by transporting it from different parts of your body back to your liver.

“I consider it the garbage collector,” Professor Anding said. “It picks up the stuff that’s not supposed to be in the blood supply and gets rid of it.”

Triglycerides and Heart Disease

By decreasing your HDL, then, triglycerides slow the process of removing cholesterol from your bloodstream and by extension increase your chances of developing. Additionally, triglycerides can directly lead to heart disease. Triglycerides are the way that we store body fat and are found in adipose tissue. 

They are formed when the body needs to store extra calories. If you gained 50 pounds in one week, then most likely the triglycerides in your blood will be elevated because your body is trying to do something with those extra calories.

Alcohol is metabolized close to fat, so excessive alcohol intake can elevate triglycerides. Increases in simple sugars found in processed carbohydrates can increase triglycerides, most likely because they’re linked with insulin excess. 

Insulin is an anabolic hormone, which means that it’s a building hormone. In the presence of extra insulin, excess calories will be converted into triglycerides. 

Omega-3s to the Rescue

Omega-3 fatty acids can intervene in this situation, reducing triglycerides up to 40% when given in the range of two to four grams per day. Fish such as salmon and mackerel, flax seeds, and walnuts are all high in Omega-3s. 

You can take fish oil as well. You can even get a prescription form of these fish oils and get insurance coverage, which helps reduce your cost. Taking under two grams of fish oil presents little risk, but if you want to increase your dose, Professor Anding encourages you to go to your physician so they can monitor you for any side effects. 

Keep in mind that oil and water do not mix—fats, or lipids, can’t circulate freely in the blood. You need something to carry it, so fats are bound to a carrier protein. This compound is called a lipoprotein: “lipo” means fat and “protein” means carrier. 

One of the major functions of protein is to be a transporting agent. This allows the transport of an oily substance—the lipid—through watery blood. 

Cholesterol is at the core of these lipoprotein structures. The amount of cholesterol is different among the different lipoproteins, and it’s a powerful indicator of heart disease risk.

To review, total cholesterol is the sum of the parts. You can think of it as an umbrella made up of subfractions of other types of cholesterol.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the link between cholesterol and heart disease, it’s important to look at each of these prongs of the umbrella. Tomorrow’s article will examine low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly known as “bad cholesterol.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.