The Fat Truth About Dyslipidemia

December 15, 2023

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Fats are necessary for survival. In the body, we call them lipids. They are needed to build the borders of our cells, create molecules and hormones, coat important neurons in the brain, protect and insulate our organs, store energy between meals, and perform many other vital functions. Lipids are fats, which don’t play well with water; think Spongebob and Squidward (or oil and water). Lipids need to be transported through the bloodstream by proteins. Lipids attach to these proteins to make lipoproteins (lipid + protein). Triglycerides are the most common type of lipid found in the body. They are used as energy for muscles and are stored in fat cells. They are transported in very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDL), and gut-produced chylomicrons. Cholesterols are needed for parts of our cells and are some of the building blocks of hormones, bile acids, and enzymes. Important types of cholesterol lipoproteins include low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high-density lipoproteins (HDL), and Lipoprotein(a) (Lp(a)). Our body stays healthy in part by maintaining a healthy balance of these lipids and lipoproteins.

Keeping the balance of lipids is critical to our health. When it is out of whack, we experience dyslipidemia. Dys meaning “bad,” lipid- indicating the lipids, or fats, and -emia meaning “presence in blood”. Dyslipidemia, or bad lipid presence in blood, is when the lipids in the blood are out of balance. This condition is unsettlingly common — one of every three American adults 20 years or older has dyslipidemia. Any imbalance falls under this description, but the most common and dangerous types in the USA are high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides. The prefix hyper- means “high,” so high cholesterol is called hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol presence in blood); high triglycerides are hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride presence in blood); and a combination of both is simply called combined dyslipidemia. Some people suffer from hypolipidemia (low lipid presence in the blood), but it is much rarer in the USA.

Because dyslipidemia is defined and diagnosed with a blood test, the underlying causes can vary, unlike conditions such as sickle cell anemia or chicken pox. Primary causes are genetic, where you inherit a risk factor. This might look like elevated Lp(a) levels, which are heavily influenced by genetics. Secondary causes are anything that may alter lipid levels, including diabetes, obesity, an unhealthy diet high in triglycerides, and lack of exercise. Regardless of the cause, the effects can be deadly. The biggest, most obvious problem is atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), when cholesterols, fats, and other materials build up on the inside of our blood vessels. These buildups, called plaques, can block blood flow to the heart, brain, or other parts of the body, potentially causing heart attack, stroke, and/or pain in the body and limbs.

With these outcomes in mind, solutions are critical. As with almost every non-infectious disease, some of the best methods for preventing complications are a healthy lifestyle. A diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains may help. Keeping calorie counts low and moderate-to-vigorous exercise is also recommended, if possible. Beyond lifestyle, medications have helped many people. Statins like Lipitor are typically the first line of defense. They are the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the world, though not everyone can tolerate them. They inhibit an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase. Statins can lower LDL levels by slowing the cholesterol-making process. PCSK9 is another important enzyme in the creation of cholesterol. PCSK9 inhibitors target this enzyme to help reduce cholesterol if statins aren’t working. Bempedoic acid and icosapent ethyl may also help reduce the amount of cholesterol the liver makes. Ezetimibe (uh·zeh·tuh·mibe) reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed. Beyond lowering lipid levels, other medications may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Finally, if medications aren’t tolerated or effective enough, blood plasma can be removed, cleaned outside the body, and pumped back in using a process called plasmapheresis.

Fats may be necessary for survival, but too many in the bloodstream can be deadly.

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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Berberich, A. J., & Hegele, R. A. (2022). A modern approach to dyslipidemia. Endocrine Reviews, 43(4), 611-653.

Feingold, K. R. (2015). Introduction to lipids and lipoproteins.

Pappan, N., & Rehman, A. (2023). Dyslipidemia. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.

Pokhrel, B., Yuet, W. C., & Levine, S. N. (2017). PCSK9 inhibitors.

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