Definition and Overview

Triglycerides are a type of fat or lipid that the body uses for energy. They are produced in the liver. They can also be sourced from certain foods. Examples are animal meat, nuts, and avocados, to name a few.

Hypertriglyceridemia occurs when a person accumulates high amounts of stored triglycerides. The condition can cause a number of medical problems. It increases the risk of heart disease as well as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).

Causes of Condition

The condition can occur due to a number of reasons. A child can inherit it from his or her parents. A person who has the condition has a 50% chance of passing it to his or her children. Other causes are the following:

  • Insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It delivers glucose to cells. When cells fail to use insulin efficiently, the levels of blood glucose increase. This prevents the insulin from converting fat into energy.

  • A diet that is high in carbohydrates - This type of diet tends to increase the risk of insulin resistance. Carbs contain large amounts of sugar. Most of the time, the body cannot use a lot of it immediately. Thus, much of it is converted and stored as fat. Also, the more carbs a person eats, the more the liver tends to produce more fat.

  • Inactivity - People who do not do anything or do little to break a sweat are not using their stored fat. Thus, doctors often advise regular exercise and activities that can keep a person moving.

  • Deep belly fat - Fat can build up in many parts of the body. In some cases, they do not go beyond the first layer of the skin. However, fat can also build up in between vital organs, such as the pancreas and liver. This type of fat can cause more serious health problems.

  • Alcohol abuse - Alcohol can do a lot of damage to a person’s body. It contains high amounts of sugar and calories.

Other possible causes and risk factors are:

  • A diet high in fat - Hypertriglyceridemia is much more common in countries where people regularly eat foods that are high in fat. These include processed meat products as well as junk foods. Examples are bacon, hamburgers, and French fries.

  • Smoking - Most people know that smoking causes damage to the lung tissue. However, only a few realise that it causes more deaths from heart disease than lung disorders. This is because it changes blood fat concentrations.

  • Kidney disease - Lipid abnormalities are very common in people with chronic kidney disease.

  • Hypothyroidism - An underactive thyroid can also increase the risk of the condition.

Key Symptoms

The condition does not have symptoms in the early stages. This is the reason why it is often overlooked. It is also the reason why most people are diagnosed only when their pancreas is already swollen. This results in fever, nausea, and vomiting. Most people also experience abdominal pain. Some also lose their appetite and lose weight.

Other symptoms are:

  • Xanthomas - These are fatty growths that form underneath the skin. They are commonly found on the chest, arms, and buttocks. They can also be seen on the hands, feet, and elbows.

  • Memory loss and dementia - These are observed in most severe cases.

  • Corneal arcus - This is a grey or whitish arc that forms around the outer part of the cornea.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Early diagnosis is the key to help patients prevent serious complications. Doctors use a simple blood test, called a lipid panel to diagnose the condition. This test is quick and very accurate.

The condition is managed by lowering the levels of triglycerides in the blood. In some cases, this can be done without medications. Doctors often advise patients to:

  • Choose “good fats” over “bad fats” - The body needs fat for energy. Foods that are high in good fats are some fruits (such as avocados), cheese, whole eggs, and fatty fish. It is also recommended to include vegetables in one’s diet as well as whole grains, which are rich in fiber.

  • Avoid or quit drinking alcohol.

  • Stop smoking as soon as possible.

  • Be more active to burn more calories. Doctors advise exercising daily for at least 30 minutes. Brisk walking and doing household chores can also help. The more active the person becomes, the lesser is his or her risk of any type of condition.

  • Lose weight. Being overweight or obese puts a person at a greater risk of many health problems.

Doctors can also prescribe medications. The most commonly used are statins. Statins work by lowering triglyceride levels. They can also slightly increase a person’s levels of “good cholesterol.”

References:

  • Mahley RW, Rall SC Jr. Type III hyperlipoproteinemia (dysbetalipoproteinemia): the role of apolipoprotein E in normal and abnormal metabolism. Scriver CR, Beaudet AR, Sly WS, Valle D, eds. The Metabolic and Molecular Bases of Inherited Disease. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2001. 2835-62.

  • Miller M, Stone NJ, Ballantyne C, Bittner V, Criqui MH, Ginsberg HN, et al. Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011 May 24. 123(20):2292-333.

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