Lipid Disorder: What You Should Know About High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Medically reviewed by Justin Choi, MD on August 9, 2017Written by Tim Jewell

What is a lipid disorder?

If your doctor says you have a lipid disorder, that means you have high blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, fats called triglycerides, or both. If you have high levels of these substances, you’re at increased risk for developing heart disease.

Cholesterol

To understand what having a lipid disorder means, you need to know about cholesterol. The two major forms of cholesterol found in your body are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL, sometimes known as “bad cholesterol,” is made by your body and also absorbed by your body from cholesterol-rich foods such as red meat and dairy products. LDL can combine with other fats and substances in your blood, creating blockages in your arteries. This can reduce your blood flow and cause serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attack, or stroke. Because of its potential effects, doctors recommend lower levels of LDL.

HDL, sometimes known as “good cholesterol,” has a protective effect on your heart. HDL transports harmful cholesterol out of your arteries. Doctors usually recommend that you have a higher level of HDL cholesterol.

Triglycerides

A triglyceride is a type of fat you get mostly from the food you eat. Your body also produces it when it converts excess calories to fat for storage. Some triglycerides are necessary for certain cell functions, but too much is unhealthy. As with LDL, lower levels of triglycerides are considered healthier.

What causes high blood cholesterol and high triglycerides?

Foods high in certain types of fats, certain medical conditions, and other factors can cause high blood cholesterol and high triglycerides.

Food

Two types of fat are known to increase cholesterol levels.

Saturated fat: Saturated fats can increase your LDL levels. Some plant-based foods, such as palm oil and coconut oil, contain saturated fats. However, saturated fat is mostly found in animal-based food products such as:

  • cheese
  • milk
  • butter
  • steak

Trans fats: Trans fats, or trans-fatty acids, are worse than saturated fats because they can raise your LDL levels and lower your HDL levels. Some trans fats are found naturally in animal products. Others are found in processed foods that have undergone a process called hydrogenation, such as some kinds of margarine and potato chips.

Medical conditions

Certain medical conditions can affect your cholesterol levels. High blood cholesterol levels can be caused by:

Other causes

Other causes of high cholesterol levels include:

  • Lack of exercise. Not getting enough exercise can increase your LDL levels. Not only that, exercise has been shown to boost your healthy HDL levels.
  • Smoking. Smoking can also increase your bad cholesterol, causing plaque to build up in your arteries.
  • Genetics. If high cholesterol runs in your family, you’re at increased risk of having high cholesterol yourself.
  • Medications. Certain medications, such as some kinds of diuretics, can increase your cholesterol levels.

Symptoms of high blood cholesterol and triglycerides

High cholesterol typically doesn’t cause any symptoms. Symptoms may only appear after the increased cholesterol has caused significant damage.

For instance, symptoms may come in the form of heart disease symptoms, such as chest pain (angina) or nausea and fatigue. A heart attack or stroke may result from uncontrolled cholesterol, among other things.

How is a lipid disorder diagnosed?

To check your cholesterol levels, your doctor will order a blood test called a lipid profile, or lipid panel. This test measures your total cholesterol (both LDL and HDL) and triglycerides. Before this test, your doctor will likely ask you to avoid eating and drinking liquids other than water for at least 8 to 12 hours.

The lipid profile measures cholesterol in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter (mg/dL). Your total cholesterol level should be no higher than 200 mg/dL. Learn how to understand your cholesterol results.

What are the treatment options for a lipid disorder?

A combination of medications and lifestyle changes is a common treatment plan to correct high cholesterol and triglycerides. Your doctor may also suggest certain supplements.

Medications

Several types of medications are used to treat lipid disorders.

Statins: These drugs block a substance created in your liver that produces cholesterol. Your liver then removes cholesterol from your blood. Statins can also absorb cholesterol trapped in your arteries. Commonly prescribed statins include:

Cholesterol absorption inhibitors: These medications lower your cholesterol levels by limiting your body’s absorption of dietary cholesterol. They are sometimes used in combination with statins.

Bile acid sequestrants: These medications trap substances called bile resins, which contain cholesterol, and prevent them from being reabsorbed in your small intestine.

Fibrates: These medications help lower triglyceride levels in your blood.

Supplements

Omega-3 fatty acids available over the counter are commonly used to lower triglycerides and LDL levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are naturally found in fatty fish such as salmon. Plant oils such as canola and olive oil also contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Niacin increases the level of HDL production. Niacin is available over the counter or in prescription strength.

Lifestyle changes

Following a healthy diet and getting enough exercise can help you reduce your cholesterol levels. These same steps can help prevent lipid disorders in the first place. See below for more information.

How can I prevent high cholesterol and triglycerides?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that no more than 6 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat. The AHA also recommends avoiding trans fats whenever possible. Eating plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can also decrease high cholesterol.

Other ways that can help you maintain a healthy cholesterol level include:

  • eating skinless poultry with no visible fat
  • eating lean meats, in moderate portions
  • eating low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • consuming polyunsaturated fats and mono-unsaturated fat instead of saturated fats and trans fats
  • exercising for at least 30 minutes per day, four days per week
  • avoiding fast food, junk food, and processed meats
  • eating grilled and roasted foods instead of fried foods

Outlook

Medication and lifestyle changes can help lower your cholesterol levels. Follow your doctor’s treatment plan to improve your health and reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

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