Over the past decade, omega-3 fatty acids have captured the spotlight as a nutrient that maintains joint health. One of its most prominent roles, however, is its role in supporting cardiovascular (CV) health.
While many components make up our cardiovascular system and how it functions, in this article, we take a deep dive into the different types of omega-3s, their effects on triglyceride levels, and what that means for your CV health.
Triglycerides: The Basics
Triglycerides are the primary type of fat (i.e., lipids) found in the blood. After a meal, your body digests the food, absorbs its nutrients, and stores the spare calories as triglycerides within your fat cells. When in need of energy and in-between meals, your brain regulates the release of hormones to trigger triglycerides to be used as a source of energy.
The National Cholesterol Education Program categorizes triglyceride levels into four tiers:
• Normal: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
• Borderline high: 150 to 199 mg/DL
• High: 200 to 499 mg/DL
• Very high: 500+ mg/DL
Triglycerides and cholesterol are commonly mistaken as the same thing. While both are lipids found in the bloodstream, triglycerides supply the body with energy while cholesterol is used to build cells and hormones. Indeed, high triglyceride levels often coexist with high cholesterol, because foods high in saturated fat and/or simple carbohydrates tend to also be high in cholesterol.
When high triglycerides coexist with low levels of the “good” cholesterol (HDL) and high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL), the risk of developing a CV problem increases. High triglycerides often occur alongside obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar and are collectively referred to as metabolic syndrome.
A balanced diet and regular exercise can help to lower triglyceride levels along with its commonly co-occurring health issues. Among the nutrients within the balanced diet are omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Game Changer
Omega-3s fall under the umbrella of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). While monounsaturated fatty acids contain single bonds, PUFAs contain double bonds that make them both more delicate and more versatile. The unique positioning of these double bonds in omega-3s gives them special properties absent in other PUFAs.
There are three types of omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA have a more complex structure and contain more double bonds than ALA. They are also the dynamic duo behind omega-3s’ reputation for helping to reduce triglyceride and LDL levels.
Dietary supplements for EPA and DHA can be obtained without a prescription, but vary in safety, purity, and concentration.
The good news is that you can find omega-3s in supplement form as well as in foods such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, beef, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and soybeans. Seafood such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, and even krill have the highest levels of EPA and DHA, while non-fish sources primarily contain ALA omega-3s.
Are There Other Ways to Lower Triglycerides?
If taking supplements or eating EPA/DHA-rich foods isn’t a practical option for you, making other healthy lifestyle choices can also reduce your triglyceride levels. Regular exercise burns calories, thereby reducing excess triglyceride stores. Cardiovascular exercise, in particular, has been shown to lower triglycerides, increase good cholesterol, and improve overall heart health.
Watching the foods you eat and their nutritional content can also go a long way in reducing triglycerides. Simple carbohydrates like sugar, refined carbs, and fructose (fruit sugar) are quickly stored as triglycerides if not burned through exercise. Alcohol, sweets, refined pasta, sugary cereals, white bread, and white rice are common culprits. Keep your eye on foods high in saturated fat and trans fat, too. You can trade these low-quality calories for foods high in omega-3s, protein, and fiber, all of which can lower your triglycerides.
As always, talk to your doctor before making a significant lifestyle change.