High blood cholesterol levels can be detrimental to the proper functioning of the heart regardless of age as it puts you at risk of cardiovascular diseases and unprecedented blood clots in the vessels. High triglyceride levels are a result of high intake of refined carbohydrates and simple sugars (diets made from fructose or sucrose) and can directly contribute to high cholesterol levels. Carbohydrates provide the body with its daily energy requirements usually stored as glycogen in muscle cells and the liver. When consumed in excess, carbohydrates are converted into triglycerides that are stored in fat cells.
Carbohydrates in the body
Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. They occur as starch, sugar or fiber. While starch and sugar are broken down at different stages of digestion, fiber passes through the system undigested. Essentially, carbohydrates are the body’s fuel. Like proteins, carbohydrates enter the blood in the portal circulation and pass directly to the liver. Fats on the other hand, do not pass through the liver. They are absorbed as chylomicrons in the lymphatic system, which empties directly to the blood stream. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars. These sugars are stored as glycogen that is easily accessible in times of energy shortage.
Why do triglycerides matter?
Triglycerides are fats that aid in the long-term storage of energy in the body. They contain twice as much energy as carbohydrates. However, they are not able to pass through cell membranes and have to be broken down by lipoprotein lipase then transported by Fatty Acid Transporters for uptake by cells. The body needs the triglycerides but in small amounts. They are derived from three fatty acids and glycerol. From the diet, they are obtained from fatty foods like oil, butter and animal protein diets. These fats can also be processed from excess carbohydrates.
The liver plays a central role in metabolism and nutrient flow in the body. It is responsible for storage and distribution of energy. The liver cells can synthesize and store triglycerides.
As carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, they are stored as glycogen in the liver. Just as a fridge and a freezer, glycogen acts as a fridge; easy to store, easy to access but limited in capacity. Body fat acts as a freezer; hardly accessible but has unlimited capacity.
Simple sugars are easily digested and absorbed and therefore trigger the production of insulin by the pancreas. Insulin signals the cells to replenish their energy levels. Insulin and glucose concentrations are often 10 times higher in the liver and the portal system blood than the rest of the systemic circulation and the body.
What happens to the created fat stores?
If you are physically active, the body first tries to burn the excess triglycerides. If this is not the case and you continue to take in more carbs, the body will not need to burn fat as there is already too much glucose floating around. The same way you would buy excess food from the store before the fridge is empty; the next option is to keep it the freezer so it stays longer to be retrieved later. So the body has the same mechanism. Glucagon hormone signals the body to breakdown triglycerides when the body requires energy from the fatty acids.
The liver’s storage capacity is limited. While some of the excess sugar may be excreted as urine or in solid waste, most of it is turned into fats (lipids) and stored for future use. Just like waste any excess fuel, excess sugars need to be dealt with before they completely clog the system. The calories that are never burnt after consumption end up as triglycerides in your body. The triglycerides are packed into proteins called the VLDL (very low density lipids) and exported out of the liver.
When there is over production of triglycerides, VLDL packages also increase which is the reason for increased plasma triglyceride levels, which can be detected in standard blood cholesterol tests.
High triglyceride levels consequently lead to high cholesterol levels in blood. When this happens within the blood circulation system, the vessels thicken and leave very little space for blood to pass through. This leads to reduced blood flow and hypertension.
Hypertriglyceridemia can occur in as little as 5 days especially if it is as a result of high carbohydrate intake. Within that sort period triglyceride levels could increase by up to 40% . Similarly, increased intake of simple sugars like sucrose and fructose (commonly found in processed foods and sweeteners) has been linked to hypertriglyceridemia.
What are the safe levels for carbohydrate consumption?
Contrary to popular belief, not all cholesterol is bad. There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. HDL, the good cholesterol, protects the heart from harmful cholesterol by flushing it out of the blood circulatory system. LDL is the harmful cholesterol that comes from red meats, deli and dairy. According to ATP III guidelines carbohydrate intake should be kept to a maximum of 60% of total calories consumed. For persons with metabolism disorders and even lower intake of less than 50% is recommended. Additionally, consumption of added sugars should be limited to about 5-10% daily.
Normal levels of triglycerides are determined by a blood test. It is conducted as part of a blood cholesterol level test. For an accurate measure, you are required to have fasted for about 9-12 hours. Normal triglyceride levels should be less than 150mg per deciliter of blood. Anything above that should be reason to take steps to decrease carb intake.
Keeping triglycerides to healthy levels can also go a long way in reducing metabolism disorders. According to Dr. Reaven, higher insulin levels produce higher blood triglyceride levels.
How to reduce triglycerides to healthy levels
· Maintain a healthy lifestyle by cutting back on consumption of added sugars. This will keep insulin to normal levels.
· Stay physically active to encourage burning of excess calories and fats.
· Keep tabs on your blood cholesterol levels. The doctor might recommend taking some drugs for lowering cholesterol. Ensure to take the medication correctly.
· Maintain a healthy diet high in dietary fibre, well balanced and that which contains niacin. Niacin lowers LDL in the blood. It is mostly recommended for people with levels higher than 500mg/dL.