While having high triglycerides may not always lead to high cholesterol, it can cause health problems on its own.
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both types of fat in your blood, but they’re not the same thing.
Your body needs cholesterol to build cells and to produce certain hormones. And it needs triglycerides to store unused calories and convert them into energy. When you eat calories that you don’t use right away, your body makes triglycerides.
It’s possible to have high triglyceride levels without high cholesterol.
For example, if your diet is high in calories from carbohydrates and sugars but not from high cholesterol foods, you may develop high triglycerides without high cholesterol. Lifestyle factors such as smoking and lack of exercise and health conditions such as liver disease and autoimmune disease can also contribute to high triglyceride levels.
- Diet: A diet high in carbohydrates, saturated fats, and calories can raise your triglycerides even if it doesn’t raise your cholesterol. This is because triglycerides are made to store extra calories. You’ll need more triglycerides when you consume more calories than your body needs, even if those calories don’t come from foods high in cholesterol.
- Smoking: Smoking is linked to increased triglyceride levels. Smoking decreases the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, in your body, making it harder for your body to fight arterial plaque buildup. It can also cause your body to overproduce triglycerides.
- Obesity: Obesity can lead to insulin resistance, which can make it harder for your body to burn fat and use energy from calories. This can increase your triglyceride levels.
- Lack of exercise: Exercise burns calories and helps keep your triglycerides in the healthy range. If you don’t get enough exercise, you’re at risk of high triglycerides.
- Heavy alcohol use: Alcohol increases the amount of liver proteins called very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs) in your body. Having too many VLDLs can make it hard for your body to burn fat and can increase your triglyceride levels.
- Liver diseases: People with certain liver diseases, such as fatty liver disease and cirrhosis, may have high triglycerides without high cholesterol. This can happen when these diseases change the way your liver makes and uses triglycerides.
- Autoimmune conditions: Your body can produce extra triglycerides to help fight inflammation. People who have autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis experience constant inflammation, which can lead to high triglyceride levels.
- Genetics: The way your body makes and manages triglycerides can be genetic. Certain genetic conditions, such as chylomicronemia and familial dysbetalipoproteinemia, can make it difficult for your body to break down fat and regulate triglyceride levels.
- Medications: Some medications — including hormonal medications, steroidal medications, retinoids, immunosuppressants, diuretics, HIV medications, and beta-blockers — can increase your triglycerides.
High triglyceride levels can be dangerous, even when you don’t have high cholesterol. High triglycerides can lead to a hardening and stiffening of your artery walls. This is called arteriosclerosis, and it can put you at risk for serious heart conditions such as heart failure, stroke, and heart attack.
High triglyceride levels can also cause inflammation in your pancreas (pancreatitis). This condition can lead to symptoms such as pain, nausea, and unintentional weight loss. Without treatment, pancreatitis can cause kidney failure, pancreatic cancer, and other serious health conditions.
You may be able to manage your triglyceride levels through lifestyle strategies. A doctor can help you plan and make any necessary changes. If lifestyle strategies are not enough, your doctor may prescribe medications or supplements — such as statins, fibrates, niacin, or fish oil — to help lower your triglycerides.
Triglyceride-lowering lifestyle changes include:
- Quitting smoking: Smoking can raise your triglycerides, and stopping can help them return to a healthy level.
- Reducing alcohol consumption: Heavy alcohol use makes it difficult for your body to use triglycerides normally. When you stop drinking or limit the amount you drink, it can lower your triglyceride levels.
- Avoiding sugar and simple carbohydrates: Excess calories from sugar and simple carbohydrates often increase triglycerides. Eating a diet lower in carbohydrates may help decrease triglyceride levels.
- Reducing saturated fat consumption: You can help lower your triglycerides by opting for foods with nutritious fats, such as fish and olive oil, instead of foods high in saturated fat.
- Making efforts to reach or maintain a moderate weight: If your doctor suggests that weight loss could be beneficial, reducing your calorie intake can help you lose weight and lower your triglycerides. Dietary changes should be combined with an exercise regimen for the best health outcome.
Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. Your body makes triglycerides in response to excess calories.
High triglyceride levels can result from factors that don’t always raise cholesterol levels. These include lifestyle factors such as diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and heavy alcohol use as well as health conditions such as liver disease and autoimmune disease. Sometimes, medications can also increase triglyceride levels.
You may be able to lower your triglyceride levels by making lifestyle changes, such as following a more nutritious diet, making efforts to lose weight, and reducing or stopping alcohol consumption. If lifestyle changes are not enough, a healthcare professional may prescribe medications to help lower your triglycerides.