Let’s face it… cholesterol is confusing. The lab spits out a number that is a combination of our HDL, LDL, and triglycerides and somehow we are supposed to make healthcare decisions based on it. There are so many problems with this measurement (how it’s calculated, lack of particle size measurement, the fact that HDL and LDL aren’t actually cholesterol but transporting proteins, etc.) that whenever I discover something new and tangible I like to share it. This new study published in the International Journal of Obesity is fascinating because it shows that high triglycerides may actually be undermining your body composition in a way we never knew before. You can read the study here. They actually cross the blood brain barrier and interfere with leptin and insulin receptors! You may not be as excited s me, yet, so let’s break down a little about what that means.
What exactly are triglycerides, you may ask? Triglycerides are fats in your blood. The body can use them for energy, but if they are not used up they are stored as fat. The liver takes unused sugar that it can’t burn and turn them into triglycerides for storage. Remember glucose is extremely toxic to the body and has to be kept in a very narrow range. If there is excess glucose the body converts it to triglycerides to protect itself and store the extra energy. So, if your triglycerides are high that is a good indicator that your body is dealing with more sugar than it has the capacity to handle. That is a classic indicator of metabolic damage and insulin resistance.
We always thought this was a one way process, meaning you eat extra sugar and the liver turns it into triglycerides. But what this fascinating new study shows us is that triglycerides actually have a signaling function in the brain. And not in a good way!
Triglycerides actually cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain and central nervous system. Once inside the rain they influence the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates energy expenditure and the “set point” of your weight and metabolism. This happens by interfering with the receptors for the hormone Leptin (which controls hunger) and Insulin (which controls blood sugar and determines whether your body burns fat or glucose for fuel).
So, not only are high triglycerides a sign that the metabolism is damaged and the body is storing fat, but they actually enter the brain and make us hungrier and more likely to store fat. Talk about a bummer of a catch-22! However, whenever we learn something new about the mechanism of hunger and obesity it clarifies our path forward. If high triglycerides cause leptin and insulin resistance then low triglycerides can hopefully help us heal these issues.
This is precisely what we observe clinically. There are two ways to effectively lower triglycerides. One is to dramatically lower carbohydrate in the diet. Less starch and sugar in the body means less need to turn that toxic sugar into its fat storage form. The other way is bump up exercise, so that the skeletal muscle is burning the glucose before it needs to stored. It has also been observed that one of the side effects of a low carb diet is a dramatic decrease in hunger. We always assumed that this was due to less fluctuations in blood sugar and ketone production (like the ketogenic diet). But, now we see that perhaps the lower triglycerides mean that fat isn’t actually entering our brain and crossing the wires on our hunger and fat storage!
It’s not too late to make a New Year’s resolution to lower carbohydrate and get exercising. Your brain will thank you!
Duncan Macdonald, L.Ac.