Physician explaining to patient what causes high triglycerides but normal cholesterol

What causes high triglycerides but normal cholesterol?

Medically reviewed on July 13, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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If you’ve been keeping tabs on your heart health, you might already be familiar with HDL vs. LDL vs. triglycerides. Triglycerides are an important part of the equation. This essential lipid is integral to keeping your heart and the rest of your body healthy and functioning properly.

That said, in certain instances, you can experience higher than normal levels of triglycerides. This can affect your health, especially if your high triglyceride count is accompanied by higher than normal total cholesterol levels.

However, you can also experience high triglycerides without high levels of cholesterol. So, what causes high triglycerides but normal cholesterol? Keep reading to find out.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of lipid, which are molecular compounds that your body uses to power a range of vital functions. [1] Our bodies naturally produce many lipids, including triglycerides, while others are derived from the food we eat.

Triglycerides play an active role in helping your body convert calories to energy. They’re formed when your body receives more calories than it needs. The leftover calories, as well as sugar and alcohol, are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells until your body is ready to use the energy. [2]

How are triglyceride levels determined?

Triglycerides levels can be measured by a blood test known as a lipid panel. This test lets you and your healthcare provider know whether your triglyceride levels are:

  • Normal – Lipids are measured in terms of their weight in milligrams per deciliter. A desirable triglyceride level is 150 mg/dl.
  • Borderline high – If you’re carrying around between 150 and 199 mg/dl of triglycerides, your levels are considered borderline high.
  • High – Triglyceride levels between 200 and 499 mg/dl fall into the high category and can be cause for concern.
  • Very high – If your triglyceride level exceeds 500 mg/dl, it’s considered very high, or far above the normal range.

What are the risks of a high triglyceride level?

As we mentioned above, triglycerides and other lipids are crucial to not just your overall health but your survival. Even though your body needs triglycerides to function, a surplus of triglycerides can lead to undesirable health conditions, such as:

  • Heart disease – Although the precise connection between elevated triglyceride levels and heart disease is still under study, it’s believed that low-density lipoproteins that carry triglycerides through your bloodstream can get stuck in your arteries, leaving plaque deposits that may lead to cardiovascular disease and conditions like heart attack and stroke. [3]
  • Pancreatitis – An excess amount of triglycerides can lead to pancreatic inflammation known as pancreatitis. In fact, some studies suggest that hypertriglyceridemia is responsible for nearly 9% of pancreatitis cases. [4]

What causes high triglycerides?

There are many factors that can contribute to elevated triglyceride levels. In some cases, the cause can be as simple as a poor diet or unhealthy lifestyle choices. But in other cases, your genes, medical history, and medications can play a part.

To that end, here are some of the most common causes of high triglycerides and normal blood cholesterol levels.

#1 Diets rich in calories, carbohydrates, and saturated fats

When you consider that your body converts calories it doesn’t need right away into fatty triglycerides, it’s easy to understand how a high-calorie diet can contribute to elevated triglyceride levels.

The more calories you ingest, the more calories your body is going to keep on standby—and the more triglycerides your liver must produce in order to store those calories.

That’s why a balanced diet is so important to maintaining healthy triglyceride levels. Consuming too many calories, especially from carbohydrates and unhealthy saturated fat, can cause you to have high levels of triglyceride.

#2 Obesity

Obesity caused by a poor diet can lead to high triglyceride levels within your body. Again, this goes back to caloric intake and how your body stores extra calories. There’s also evidence to suggest that obesity sends your body’s fat-producing genes into overdrive, producing more triglycerides than your body can use. [5]

Additionally, insulin resistance is a frequent side effect of obesity. When insulin resistance occurs, the tissues in your body lose their receptivity to insulin. As a result, your body has trouble:

  • Burning fat, including fatty triglycerides
  • Converting glucose into cellular energy

#3 Smoking

Smoking has been linked to high triglyceride levels in a number of studies. Research that compares the triglyceride levels of smokers with those of non-smokers shows that among the former group, triglyceride levels were higher—sometimes as much as 40%.

There are two potential reasons for this. The first is that ingredients in cigarettes, especially nicotine and tar, are thought to encourage your body to produce extra triglycerides. At the same time, smoking decreases the amount of high-density lipoproteins, or “good” cholesterol, that help your body fight arterial plaque build-up.

#4 Sedentary lifestyle or lack of exercise

The amount of exercise you get can have an effect on your triglyceride levels. If you lead an inactive lifestyle, you’re more likely to accumulate extra calories, which your body will quickly transform into triglycerides for later use.

However, if you aren’t staying active enough to use those triglycerides, they’ll hang around in your system.

#5 Excess drinking

Alcohol is thought to be a cause of elevated triglyceride levels. This is because alcohol increases the amount of very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) that your liver produces. This inhibits your body’s ability to burn fat and increases the amount of fat stored in your liver.

For related reasons, consuming too much alcohol can also put you at increased risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Pancreatic inflammation

#6 Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is defined as a disease that disrupts how your body uses the insulin it creates. That said, when you have type 2 diabetes, your body tissues don’t respond to insulin.

Unfortunately, your tissues need that insulin to convert glucose into energy your cells need. To compensate, your liver begins producing extra amounts of very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) which are very high in triglycerides.

#7 Liver disease

Certain liver diseases can sometimes cause high triglycerides levels when you have normal cholesterol. Typically, they affect how your liver produces triglycerides and how your body uses them. Liver diseases that are thought to contribute to high triglyceride levels include:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Cirrhosis

#8 Inflammation and autoimmune diseases

Changes in your body that result from certain diseases can also have an effect on your triglyceride levels. Your body may produce triglycerides to decrease inflammation and ward off infection. However, this can lead to an overabundance of triglycerides in your body.

These types of autoimmune conditions include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis
  • Gum disease

#10 Genetic disorders

Your genes can play a part in how well your body manages its triglycerides. For example, obesity, which can be an inherited trait, can sometimes cause high triglyceride levels.

Other genetically inherited conditions that can lead to high triglycerides include:

  • Chylomicronemia – This is a genetic condition that restricts how well your body breaks down fat cells. [6]
  • Primary mixed hyperlipidemia – Mixed hyperlipidemia is passed on genetically and is characterized by elevated levels of triglycerides as well as cholesterol and other lipids. [7] Hyperlipidemia can increase your risk of heart disease and is exacerbated by conditions like diabetes and hypothyroidism.
  • Familial dysbetalipoproteinemia – This medical condition is marked by a disruption in the apoE gene, the gene responsible for making a special protein that uses fats and other lipids to make lipoproteins. [8]

#11 Medications

A range of medications to treat various diseases and conditions can raise your triglyceride levels to unhealthy amounts. Commonly, those medications include:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Diuretics
  • Estrogen
  • HIV medications
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Progestin
  • Retinoids
  • Steroids

Monitor your triglyceride levels with Everlywell

High-calorie diets, unhealthy lifestyles, and certain medical conditions can often lead to elevated triglyceride levels. However, managing your cholesterol and triglyceride levels is crucial to maintaining your overall health.

That’s why regularly testing your lipid levels is so important. Detecting elevated triglyceride levels allows you to begin making changes to prevent severe health risks.

But life gets hectic, and sometimes even important things like visiting your healthcare provider can fall by the wayside. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to stay on top of your health from the comfort of your home.

Welcome to Everlywell.

We’re making it easier than ever to get a handle on your health and gain crucial insight into your lipid and triglyceride levels. The at-home Cholesterol & Lipids Test from Everlywell measures your triglyceride levels, in addition to three types of cholesterol lipids to give you a clear picture of your wellness needs.

Each test kit contains everything you need to safely and effectively measure your lipid levels, including lancets for collecting a blood sample and a prepaid address label for sending your sample to the lab for testing.

Whether your healthcare provider has expressed concerns about your triglyceride levels or you're simply curious to find out where yours stand, the Everlywell at-home Cholesterol Test & Lipids Test can give you the insight you're looking for.

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References

  1. Triglycerides: Why Do They Matter? Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  2. Triglycerides: Health Risks, Ways to Lower Levels. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. New Study Gets to Heart of Triglycerides’ Role in Coronary Disease. Broad Institute. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  4. Hypertriglyceridemia Pancreatitis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. 13 Causes of High Triglycerides + Normal Levels. SelfDecode. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  6. Chylomicronemia Syndrome. Medicine Plus. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  7. Mixed Hyperlipidemia: Causes, Treatment, and More. Healthline. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  8. Dysbetalipoproteinemia. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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