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Triglycerides: A measure of heart health


Why it's not just cholesterol levels you should watch out for.

By Sonia J. Silos, M.D.

 
FEBRUARY 2012 

Many patients are familiar with the lipid profile, a common test ordered for screening or monitoring of diseases like hypertension, diabetes or metabolic syndrome. They know that it is a blood test taken after nine to 12 hours of fasting to measure cholesterol. But it also measures another important parameter which people remain mostly unaware of: triglycerides.


Decoding the lipid profile

Melanie Cruz, M.D., cardiologist and lecturer at San Beda College of Medicine, explains the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol: “[They] are different types of lipids circulating in the blood. Triglycerides are the energy storage units of the body. When you eat, excess calories are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells. When [needed], triglycerides are then metabolized to provide the energy required. Cholesterol, on the other hand, is used to form and maintain cell membranes in the body … [and] to produce essential hormones. Too much cholesterol leads to formation of plaque in blood vessels, which may lead to coronary artery disease and stroke.”

Both elevated triglycerides and cholesterol are risk factors for the development of heart disease. However, Dr. Cruz emphasizes that high levels do not automatically result in heart problems and that conversely, normal triglycerides and cholesterol may still lead to development of heart disease.


What results say

A high or even borderline level of triglycerides warrants a visit to the doctor for risk evaluation of heart disease. On the other end of the spectrum, a subnormal triglyceride level of less than 100 mg/dL is considered optimal for the improvement of heart health, while extremely low levels may indicate other diseases like hyperthyroidism.

Unfortunately, apart from blood test results, there are no obvious red flags for abnormal triglyceride levels—a fact that emphasizes the value of screening. Dr. Cruz recommends that healthy individuals start testing their lipid profiles at age 20, and every five years thereafter.


Managing triglycerides

An abnormal triglyceride level is a sign, not a disease in itself. The American Heart Association does not recommend drug treatment to reach the optimal level for triglycerides, which usually respond well to simple dietary and lifestyle changes.

Dr. Cruz outlines steps for managing abnormal lipids and triglycerides:

Achieve and maintain a normal weight.

Regulate calorie intake. This means eating carbohydrates in moderation and minimizing eating fried and processed foods.

Improve your diet. Load up on vegetable and fruits. Eat fish with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna and mackerel.

Exercise regularly.

Avoid excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol is high in sugar and calories, so regular or excessive drinking can cause a significant increase in triglyceride levels.
 

For more information on this heart health parameter, get a copy of the February issue of HealthToday magazine, available in newsstands and bookstores.







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