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There Is Something Fishy About Triglycerides

I get a kick out of those commercials which portray conversations at the kitchen table or in the locker room in ways that we don’t normally see. Two women sipping coffee from pretty china cups might naturally start discussing headache medications or hygiene. Men might forgo the normal locker room banter for the much superior topics of foot care or that insurance that only a duck can seem to remember. Some people even get so excited about their cholesterol that they stop perfect strangers on the street to announce significant reductions in their own cholesterol levels. Some of these commercials give us an excuse to leave the room for more pressing matters, while others make us smile in appreciation of their creativity. But there is one thing they have in common.

They direct our attention to topics of great importance that we don’t naturally discuss. High cholesterol is one such topic. Fortunately cholesterol is getting more press these days. Not only do television commercials and news reports discuss the dangers of high cholesterol, but even cereal boxes are preaching the message. Cholesterol is not the only enemy of heart health that is attracting more attention.

Triglycerides are gaining notoriety in the public eye as adversarial to a healthy heart. Though triglycerides might not be the topic of choice in the average locker room I think it is safe to assume that it is of greater importance than the majority of subjects that occupy center stage in that arena. Whether or not we choose to speak of such things most of us know something of their importance and secretly hope they do not become an important factor in our lives or in the lives of those we love. But sticking one’s head in the proverbial sand is hardly proactive and does nothing to avoid potential problems. If triglycerides are an important health concern we should face the problem eye to eye and take action in true Western style. Many doctors have not been alarmed with high triglyceride levels in their patients as long as cholesterol levels and other components of the lipid profile are within an acceptable range. That is because many believe that triglyceride levels alone do not adversely affect the heart. However, some studies are beginning to alter that thinking. For example, one study at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore demonstrated that people who are middle-aged or older having triglyceride levels above 100 are twice as likely to suffer from a heart attack, die from a heart attack or undergo treatment related to heart health than are people with triglyceride levels below 100 (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, May 1998). When we consider that triglycerides below 150 are within the accepted “normal” range we have cause to rethink the importance of triglycerides.

Heart health is not the only thing affected by triglycerides. A report in the Journal of the American Heart Association stated that high triglycerides are associated with ischemic stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIA). This conclusion came from an eight year study involving 11,177 patients with coronary heart disease and no history of stroke or TIA. Those patients who later suffered from strokes or TIAs had higher than average levels of triglycerides and lower than average levels of HDL cholesterol. There is no lack of research supporting the thesis that high triglyceride levels, either in conjunction with other risk factors or as an independent risk indicator, puts one in a more dangerous position in relation to heart attack or stroke. There are many folks who would ignore this fact even if a duck could learn to say “Triglycerides”. But what about the rest of us? Some of us are concerned. What can we do? In the early 1970's two Danish researchers observed that Eskimos had diets very high in fatty fish. They expected to find that these people would have high incidence of heart disease. In fact they found the exact opposite.

It was discovered that the blood platelets of Eskimos were not as sticky as those of their European and American counterparts. The researchers attributed this "non-sticky" characteristic to the omega-3 fatty acids consumed in the Eskimos' diet. Further studies have brought increased knowledge of the effects of fish oils and especially omega-3 fatty acids for the reduction of blood pressure and fat in the blood. Studies continue to uncover the positive effects that omega-3 fatty acids have in the treatment of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma and arthritis. Concerning heart health, fish oils decrease the risk of sudden death from arrhythmia, decrease blood clotting, reduce atherosclerosis, help lower blood pressure and improve arterial health. More particular to this essay is the fact that study upon study has demonstrated that the fish oils in cold water fish have triglyceride reducing powers. It is no wonder the American Heart Association since the year 2000 has been preaching the importance of healthy adults eating fish. But what about unhealthy adults already struggling with high triglycerides? The answer that many researchers are giving is, “Eat more fish.” Or more precisely, ingest more omega-3 fatty acids. People who have elevated triglycerides may need 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) per day provided as a supplement.

High levels of omega-3 can not be ingested through diet alone. You should consult a physician to discuss taking supplements to reduce heart disease risk. Patients taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements should do so only under a physician’s care. Let’s face it. Our diets are not nearly what they should be. It isn’t just about calories, carbohydrates and thin waistlines. Our hearts need more omega-3. If you are a fish lover then indulge your fantasies. Eat more.


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