Fish oil supplements have been touted for years as a cure or preventative for many ailments. But the FDA recently approved a new prescription omega-3 fatty acid product, icosapent ethyl (Vascepa—Amarin), which contains primarily eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) for the management of patients with extremely high triglycerides. According to the American Heart Association, prescription omega-3 fatty acid medication is effective in reducing triglyceride levels by 20-30% among those treated.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. Along with blood pressure and cholesterol levels, your triglyceride levels are an indication of how healthy your heart is. Unfortunately, elevated triglycerides are more and more common among people in the US, as rates of obesity and diabetes rise. Both of those conditions raise triglyceride levels.
When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. Hours later, when energy is needed, hormones release the triglycerides into your blood for an energy boost. But if you regularly consume more calories than you burn, in particular from high-carbohydrate foods, this may raise your triglycerides.
Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention
High levels of these triglyceride fats can lead to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition to cardiovascular risk, very high levels of triglycerides (above 500 mg/dL) can also cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
High triglycerides can also be a sign of:
- Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes
- Metabolic syndrome — a condition when high blood pressure, obesity and high blood sugar occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease
- Low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism)
- Certain rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat to energy
Healthy Lifestyle Changes from the Mayo Clinic to reduce triglycerides:
- Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week. Regular exercise can lower triglycerides and boost “good” cholesterol. Try to incorporate more physical activity into your daily tasks — for example, climb the stairs at work or take a walk during breaks.
- Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and foods made with white flour or fructose, can increase triglycerides.
- Lose weight. If you have mild to moderate hypertriglyceridemia, focus on cutting calories. Extra calories are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Reducing your calories will reduce triglycerides.
- Aim for a rainbow of colorful vegetables on your plate. You’ll feel fuller eating more vegetables and won’t be hungry when you reduce your carbs.
- Choose healthier fats. Trade saturated fat found in meats for healthier fat found in plants, such as olive and canola oils. Instead of red meat, try fish high in omega-3 fatty acids — such as mackerel or salmon. Avoid trans fats or foods with hydrogenated oils or fats.
- Don’t go fat-free! You’ll be too hungry. Add some avocado to a salad to make an entire meal of it. You’ll feel fuller and can have a meatless meal.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink. Alcohol is high in calories and sugar and has a particularly potent effect on triglycerides. If you have severe hypertriglyceridemia, your healthcare provider will probably advise you to avoid drinking any alcohol. This is especially important if there is any pancreatitis.
If your high triglycerides still cannot be brought down, your healthcare professional might recommend the omega 3 fatty acid medication mentioned above. Statins and niacin are also prescribed to treat high cholesterol which often accompanies high triglycerides.
Researchers advise patients not to try to treat a high-triglycerides condition themselves with non-prescription fish oil supplements, as they have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. If you are heart-healthy, high quality over-the-counter omega-3 fatty acid supplements are fine to add to your diet, but the best answer is in the kitchen. Eat the fish!
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