High Triglycerides

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High Triglycerides

Overview

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. Your body uses them for energy.

You need some triglycerides for good health. But high triglycerides can raise your risk of heart disease and may be a sign of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is the combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, too much fat around the waist, low HDL ("good") cholesterol, and high triglycerides. Metabolic syndrome increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

A blood test that measures your cholesterol also measures your triglycerides. For a general idea about your triglycerides level, compare your test results to the following:

  • Normal is less than 1.7.
  • Borderline-high is 1.7 to 2.1.
  • High is 2.2 to 5.4.
  • Very high is 5.5 or higher.

What causes high triglycerides?

High triglycerides are usually caused by other conditions, such as:

  • Obesity.
  • Poorly controlled diabetes.
  • An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
  • Kidney disease.
  • Regularly eating more calories than you burn.
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol.

Certain medicines may also raise triglycerides. These medicines include:

In a few cases, high triglycerides also can run in families.

What are the symptoms?

High triglycerides usually don't cause symptoms.

But if your high triglycerides are caused by a genetic condition, you may see fatty deposits under your skin. These are called xanthomas (say “zan-THOH-muhs”).

How can you lower your high triglycerides?

You can make diet and lifestyle changes to help lower your levels.

  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Limit fats and sugars in your diet.
  • Be more active.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Limit alcohol.

You also may need medicine to help lower your triglycerides, but your doctor likely will ask you to try diet and lifestyle changes first.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about high triglycerides:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with high triglycerides:

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Cause

The most common causes of high triglycerides are obesity and poorly controlled diabetes. If you are overweight and are not active, you may have high triglycerides, especially if you eat a lot of carbohydrate or sugary foods or drink a lot of alcohol. Binge drinking (of alcohol) can cause dangerous spikes in triglyceride levels that can trigger inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).

Other causes of high triglycerides include hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and certain inherited lipid disorders.

Estrogen replacement therapy, which may be used for menopause symptoms, may also raise triglyceride levels. Certain medicines may also raise triglycerides. These medicines include:

High triglycerides rarely occur on their own. They are usually associated with other conditions.

High triglycerides are a part of metabolic syndrome, a group of medical problems that increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome includes:

  • High triglycerides.
  • Low HDL ("good") cholesterol.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood sugar.
  • Too much fat, especially around the waist.

Symptoms

High triglycerides by themselves do not cause symptoms. If your high triglycerides are caused by a genetic condition, you may have visible fatty deposits under the skin called xanthomas.

In rare cases, people who have very high triglyceride levels may develop inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), which can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and fever.

Triglycerides are categorized as follows:

Triglyceride levels
Normal Less than 1.7 millimoles per litre (mmol/L)
Borderline-high 1.7–2.1 mmol/L
High 2.2–5.4 mmol/L
Very high 5.5 or higher

If you have high triglycerides, you may also have high cholesterol. In many cases, people don't know that they have high triglycerides until they have a blood test called a lipoprotein analysis to check their cholesterol levels.

If your triglyceride levels are high, your doctor will also check for and treat other associated conditions that may be linked to high triglycerides. These conditions include diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and metabolic syndrome.

Treatment Overview

You can use diet and lifestyle changes to lower triglyceride levels. These changes may be especially good at lowering borderline-high levels (1.7 to 2.1 mmol/L) back to normal levels (less than 1.7 mmol/L).

Diet and lifestyle changes include:

  • Staying at a healthy weight.
  • Limiting fat and sugars.
  • Being more active.
  • Limiting alcohol.

You may also take medicines to lower triglyceride levels. Medicines may be used if you have risk factors for coronary artery disease (CAD). In this case, your doctor may first want to lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol level and raise your HDL ("good") cholesterol level before adding medicine to lower your triglycerides.

For more information on target levels and treatment for high cholesterol, see the topic High Cholesterol.

Use this Interactive Tool: Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack? to calculate your risk of a heart attack based on your cholesterol levels and other factors.

Initial treatment

Diet and lifestyle changes are the first steps you will take to lower triglyceride levels.

Diet and lifestyle changes include:

  • Staying at a healthy weight or reducing calories to lose weight.
  • Limiting the amount of carbohydrate and unhealthy fat that you eat.
  • Being more active.
  • Limiting alcohol.
  • Not smoking.
  • Keeping blood sugar as close to normal as possible if you have diabetes.

Adding fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids) to your diet may lower triglyceride levels. You can add fish oil by eating fish at least 2 times a week or by taking supplements. Oily fish with lots of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, and mackerel.

You may want to try Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) and the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet. TLC is a combination of diet and lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol. The following information can help you get started with the TLC diet:

To reduce carbohydrate in your diet, you may want to learn about the amount of carbohydrate in various foods.

Alcohol has a particularly strong effect on triglycerides. Regular, excessive use of alcohol or even a one-time drinking binge can cause a significant increase in triglycerides. Binge drinking can cause a spike in your triglycerides that may trigger pancreatitis. Your doctor will want you either to stop or to limit the amount of alcohol you drink.

Before you increase your activity, check with your doctor to be sure it is safe. You may also want to talk with a dietitian to design a nutrition program that is right for you.

Your doctor will also look for anything else that might be causing your high triglycerides, such as hypothyroidism, poorly controlled diabetes, kidney disease, or medicines. Your doctor may adjust or stop any medicines that might raise your triglyceride level.

Ongoing treatment

If your triglycerides are still high after you make lifestyle changes, you may need to take medicine as well. Whether your doctor prescribes medicine for high triglycerides depends on more than just your triglyceride number. Your doctor will also look at your cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease before prescribing a medicine for high triglycerides.

If you have high cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease, you may need a combination of medicines that target the different types of cholesterol. The medicines that you might take are:

Statins are used to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Statins may also lower triglycerides. If you have both high LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides, your doctor may first prescribe statins to lower your LDL and later prescribe a medicine to lower your triglycerides.

If your triglycerides are very high even after lifestyle changes, your doctor may first use medicine to lower your triglycerides to prevent damage to your pancreas.

Fibrates (fibric acid derivatives) should be used with caution by people who are also taking statins. There is a greater risk of developing a life-threatening muscle problem called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. So it is important that your kidneys and liver are healthy before you take this combination of medicines. If you have any muscle problems or pain, report it immediately to your doctor.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

If you have not previously been taking medicines for high triglycerides, you probably will start. If you have been taking medicines but they have not been effective, your doctor may change your dosage or add new medicines. The medicines that you might take are:

If you are taking a statin, you need to be extra careful if you are also taking fibrate medicines. There is a greater risk of developing a life-threatening muscle problem called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. Before you can take this combination of medicines, your kidneys and liver must be healthy and function normally. If you have any muscle problems or pain, report it immediately to your doctor.

You may need to think about how well you are able to follow your plan for making lifestyle changes. You may need to get some help to meet your goals. Consider meeting with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can work with you to make healthier food choices. Do not overlook the importance of increasing your activity—join a health club or consult a personal trainer who can design a program for you to help make exercising interesting, fun, and more effective. You may want to choose walking to help increase activity in your life.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Walking for wellness

Home Treatment

Diet and lifestyle changes can help lower your triglycerides. For example:

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Cardiovascular Society
222 Queen Street
Suite 1403
Ottawa, ON  K1P 5V9
Phone: 1-877-569-3407 toll-free
(613) 569-3407
Fax: (613) 569-6574
Web Address: www.ccs.ca
 

The Canadian Cardiovascular Society works to advance the cardiovascular health and care of Canadians through leadership, research, and advocacy.


Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
222 Queen Street
Suite 1402
Ottawa, ON  K1P 5V9
Phone: (613) 569-4361
Fax: (613) 569-3278
Web Address: www.heartandstroke.ca
 

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada works to improve the health of Canadians by preventing and reducing disability and death from heart disease and stroke through research, health promotion, and advocacy.


Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
Phone: Telephone numbers for PHAC vary by region. For your regional number, go to the listing on the PHAC website at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/contac-eng.php.
Web Address: www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-ps/hl-mvs/index-eng.php
 

The Public Health Agency of Canada's Healthy Living webpage provides information and resources about healthy eating, physical activity, and staying at a healthy weight.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Heart Association (2006). Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006. Circulation, 114(1): 82–96. [Erratum in Circulation, 114(1): e27.]
  • McPherson R, et al. (2006). Canadian Cardiovascular Society position statement—Recommendations for the diagnosis and treatment of dyslipidemia and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 22(11): 913–927.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Carl Orringer, MD - Cardiology, Clinical Lipidology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised January 18, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.