What Are Triglycerides?

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Triglycerides are a form of fat the body uses for storing and transporting energy. They account for the vast majority of fat stored in the human body.

Having some triglycerides in your blood is normal. When triglyceride levels get too high, though, they can cause health problems.

This article will help you understand what triglycerides are, what they do in your body, and when they can cause problems. It will also go over some of the ways that high triglyceride levels are treated. 

Blood lipid panel paperwork with close up of pencil
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What They Are

Triglycerides are made up of three fatty acids bonded to a naturally occurring alcohol called glycerol. This is where the "tri" in "triglyceride” comes from. Some types of triglycerides you may be familiar with include oleic acid and palmitic acid.

How They Work

Triglycerides are used for transporting and storing fatty acids in the body. These fatty acids are important because they can be burned as fuel for the body's needs. 

When food is plentiful, the fatty acids are stored in the body's fat cells, and body fat accumulates. During periods of fasting, triglycerides are released by fat cells into the blood to provide fuel for the body.

You get your triglycerides in two ways: You manufacture them yourself, or you get them from the food you eat.

Triglycerides You Make

When food is plentiful, your body synthesizes triglycerides in your liver and your fat cells. For example, when you eat a high-carbohydrate meal, any carbs you don't need for fuel right away are converted to triglycerides.

Your liver releases these newly made triglycerides into your bloodstream in the form of very low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs). VLDLs deliver the triglycerides to fat cells for long-term storage.

Triglycerides You Eat

Most of the fat you eat, whether from animals or from plants, consists of various triglycerides. Because triglyceride molecules are very large, your intestines can't absorb them intact. Instead, your body breaks them down into their glycerol and fatty acid components during digestion. These components are then absorbed by the cells that line your intestines.

The triglycerides are reassembled inside the intestinal cells. Then, they are released into your bloodstream in packages called chylomicrons. Your tissues remove the triglycerides from the chylomicrons and either burn them for energy or store them as fat.

After a meal, the density of chylomicrons in your bloodstream increases for several hours. This is why healthcare providers always ask you to fast for 12 hours before drawing your blood for a serum lipid level test.

Associated Conditions

Triglycerides can become a problem in two ways.

First, excess body fat, especially fat stored in abdominal tissues, can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Excess body fat can also increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Second, high triglyceride blood levels, a condition called hypertriglyceridemia, is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, very high triglyceride levels can cause pancreatitis, a painful and sometimes dangerous inflammation of the pancreas.

Your healthcare provider can assess your risk for cardiovascular disease by looking at your baseline blood lipid levels. These are your blood lipid levels measured when you are fasting. Elevated non-fasting triglyceride levels, however, may also be associated with cardiovascular risk.

Treating High Triglycerides

If you have high triglycerides, your healthcare provider will do a full evaluation to find out why. There are several potential causes for high triglycerides. Many of them are treatable. These include:

If you have high triglycerides, your healthcare provider will look for these conditions and treat them if they are found.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend therapy specifically aimed at bringing down your triglycerides. This will include lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. It may also include medication, such as: 

Summary

Triglycerides are a kind of fat. Your body uses them for energy. It is normal to have some triglycerides in your blood, but too many can cause problems.

Your body can make triglycerides or get them from the foods you eat. They are either used immediately for energy or stored as fat.

When your triglycerides are too high, it can lead to health problems like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and pancreatitis. Fortunately, high triglycerides can often be treated with diet and lifestyle changes or with medication. 

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