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VLDL Cholesterol Levels, Blood Test + Ways to Lower VLDL

Written by Biljana Novkovic, PhD | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Biljana Novkovic, PhD | Last updated:

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The effects of high VLDL cholesterol, how to best measure it and maintain healthy levels is still a hot topic of research. It is clear, though, that high VLDL is a major risk factor for heart disease and may contribute to chronic inflammation. Read on to learn more about VLDL-C and find out which lifestyle and dietary changes can help lower VLDL-C levels.

What Is VLDL Cholesterol?

VLDL-cholesterol (VLDL-C) is cholesterol bound to very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles. It transports triglycerides (fats) and cholesterol in the bloodstream [1].

Only a couple of decades ago, it was thought that high cholesterol in the blood was the main cause of heart disease. Now it is obvious that this picture is incomplete and that the levels of different particles that carry cholesterol in the body are more important than total cholesterol levels [2, 3].

There are several types of particles that carry cholesterol through the blood, such as VLDL, HDL, and LDL, each with different effects on the body and functions. These particles are all lipoproteins, made up of both fats (lipids) and proteins. Since fats do not easily dissolve in the blood, lipoproteins help to transport them [3, 4].

Lipoproteins are named according to their density and size. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and is the densest and smallest of the three. LDL and VLDL stand for low-density lipoprotein and very-low-density lipoprotein, respectively. Cholesterol that is bound to these two types of lipoproteins is also referred to as “bad” cholesterol [3].

VLDL Function

VLDL is made in the liver after the body absorbs fat from dietary sources. It transports triglycerides (with fatty acids) to the muscles and fat tissue, where they are deposited. In return, VLDL takes up cholesterol from the tissues. As it loses triglycerides, VLDL becomes LDL – a particle rich in cholesterol and low in triglycerides [4].

VLDL Negatives

Though VLDL is required by the body, high levels of VLDL may cause serious health problems [5].

The levels of VLDL are not the only thing that matters, however. The size and chemical makeup of VLDL particles also contribute to health risks [6, 7, 8, 9]:

  • Some VLDL particles are larger than others because they contain more fat.
  • The protein portion of VLDL may also become oxidized, which can cause oxidative damage to the inner lining of blood vessels, contributing to the formation of plaques in blood vessels.

VLDL-Cholesterol Blood Test

There is no simple test for directly measuring VLDL-C levels. Due to the complicated nature of the laboratory techniques needed to measure VLDL-C, its levels are estimated based on triglyceride levels found in the blood [10, 11].

The most widely used method for estimating VLDL-C is to divide the level of blood triglycerides by 5. This equation assumes that there is a fixed 5:1 ratio of triglycerides to VLDL particles. This assumption is not always true because the actual ratio varies due to ethnicity, gender, and diet [11, 12, 13]. In addition, the calculation is not accurate when the triglyceride level is > 400 mg/dl (4.5 mmol/L). In cases like this, VLDL-C may be measured directly using specialized testing.

It is important to note that the level of VLDL-C alone is not the only factor that plays a role in heart disease. Other factors, such as the size and chemical makeup of VLDL-C, also play a role. Currently, there are no simple tests that account for these factors [6, 8].

Normal Range

Normal levels of VLDL-C are less than or equal to 30 mg/dl. High VLDL-C levels are above 30 mg/dl [14, 15]. Normal range may vary slightly between different laboratories.

Women produce fewer VLDL than men, resulting in lower overall VLDL-C levels [16, 14].

VLDL-C levels tend to rise in women following menopause. It is not clear if this increase in VLDL-C levels is due to the drop in hormones, increased body fat after menopause, or other factors [17].

High VLDL-Cholesterol

Causes

Causes listed below are commonly associated with high VLDL-cholesterol levels. Work with your doctor or another health care professional to get an accurate diagnosis.

1) Carbs and Excess Calories

A study in postmenopausal women showed that diets high in carbs and low in fats can increase VLDL-C levels [18].

Diets high in carbs and calories in general increase the triglyceride and therefore VLDL-C levels [19, 20].

2) Sedentary Lifestyle

Being physically inactive i.e. a sedentary lifestyle increases triglyceride and therefore VLDL-C levels [21, 22, 23].

3) Obesity

About 50% of obese people have increased VLDL-C caused by increased production of VLDL by the liver, decreased removal of VLDL-C from the blood, or both [24].

In a study that compared 12 obese men and 12 lean men, the obese men had increased liver production of VLDL [25].

4) Insulin Resistance and Diabetes

Insulin lowers VLDL-C levels so when cells become resistant to insulin, they cannot properly lower VLDL-C [1, 26].

A study of 1,850 patients showed that people with greater insulin resistance had not only higher levels of VLDL-C but also produced larger, fattier VLDL particles. Studies in mice have also confirmed this [27, 28].

There’s a study that found that type-1 diabetes may not be associated with changes in VLDL-C levels in response to sugar. This suggests that only insulin resistance, characteristic of type-2 diabetes, adds to the risk of increased VLDL-C (a study of 8 men with type-1 diabetes) [29].

5) Hypothyroidism

In a study of 45 women, women with slightly lower thyroid function had higher levels of VLDL-C than women with normal thyroid function. Women with slightly higher thyroid function had lower levels of VLDL-C [30].

Another study of 113 patients, both male and female, confirmed that patients with slightly less active thyroid were more likely to have higher levels of VLDL-C and larger-sized VLDL [31].

6) Inflammation and Infection

Inflammation-promoting cytokines in Inflammation and infection increase VLDL production [32].

7) Chronic Kidney Disease

People with chronic kidney disease may produce VLDL-C at a normal rate but are less able to remove the VLDL-C from the blood [33].

8) Liver Disease

People with liver disease (e.g. fatty liver, cirrhosis) have higher triglyceride and VLDL-C levels [34, 35, 36].

9) Tobacco

Studies suggest that both smoking and chewing tobacco can increase VLDL-C and triglyceride levels [37, 38, 39].

10) Medication

Drugs that can increase VLDL-C levels include:

  • Glucocorticoids, such as prednisone [32, 40]
  • Water pills (diuretics) such as hydrochlorothiazide (Apo-hydro) [41]
  • Vitamin A derivative isotretinoin (Accutane) used to treat severe acne [42]
  • Second-generation antipsychotics such as clozapine (Clozaril, FazaClo, Versacloz) and risperidone ( Risperdal, Risperdal Consta) [43]

11) Genetic Disorders

Some rare genetic disorders (e.g. familial hypertriglyceridemia, familial combined hyperlipoproteinemia) cause an increase in VLDL-C [19].

Health Effects of High VLDL-C

1) Fatty Liver Disease

High VLDL levels can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Fat may build up in the liver when it is unable to move all the VLDL cholesterol to the blood. Reducing VLDL levels may reduce fat build-up fat in the liver, which may improve symptoms of fatty liver syndrome and diabetes [44, 45].

A study of 128 patients with fatty liver disease showed that the larger the VLDL particles a patient had, the more severe the disease was. Larger VLDL molecules can carry more fat than smaller ones. Another study of 25 obese people also showed that those with fat in their liver had increased production of VLDL [46, 47].

However, fatty liver disease can eventually cause liver damage that prevents the liver from producing VLDL, so VLDL-C levels may be lower in people with long-term fatty liver disease [27].

2) Clogged Arteries and Heart Disease

A study of over 30k people showed that those with high levels of VLDL-C (30 mg/dL or more) were 2-3 times more likely to develop heart disease [48].

When VLDL is broken down by the body, it is turned into byproducts that also contribute directly to the blocking of arteries. In addition, larger molecules of VLDL carry more fat that is then more likely to become stuck to the walls of the blood vessels. Therefore, lowering the size and levels of VLDL may protect against this effect [49, 50].

3) Type-2 Diabetes

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, abdominal obesity, and high blood sugar.

Metabolic syndrome is marked by insulin resistance and often leads to type-2 diabetes. People with large VLDL particles, but small LDL and HDL, had the worst symptoms of metabolic syndrome, and a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes (study with 1,036 people) [51].

Increased VLDL-C levels occurred before the development of type-2 diabetes in patients with metabolic syndrome, suggesting that high VLDL-C may contribute to this progression [52].

4) High Blood Pressure

VLDL stimulates the production of aldosterone, a hormone that causes the body to hold on to salt, leading to increased blood pressure [53, 54, 55].

Obesity often leads to high blood pressure, which may be caused by high levels of VLDL-C. Lowering VLDL-C levels may reduce obesity-related high blood pressure [56].

Decreasing VLDL-C

The most important thing is to work with your doctor to find out what’s causing your high VLDL-C levels and to treat any underlying conditions.

Depending on your medical history and other test results, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.

Discuss the additional lifestyle changes listed below with your doctor. None of these strategies should ever be done in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes!

Because of the relationship between VLDL and triglycerides, you can lower your VLDL cholesterol level by taking steps to lower your triglyceride level. These include making healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing excess weight and exercising regularly. It has also been advised to avoid sugary foods and alcohol in particular since these have a strong effect on triglycerides.

1) Exercise

Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or cycling, for over 30 minutes several times a week can help lower your triglyceride and VLDL-C levels [19, 57, 58, 59].

2) Weight Loss

Lose weight if overweight. Losing weight can help decrease your triglyceride and VLDL-C levels [19, 60].

3) Healthy Diet

The following dietary changes can help reduce VLDL-C levels:

  • Avoid overeating in general. Eat less of sugary and processed foods and minimize your intake of saturated and trans fats [18, 19, 20].
  • Eat more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables [61].
  • A Mediterranean diet is a good example of a diet that can help lower your triglyceride and VLDL-C levels and decrease your risk of heart disease. This type of diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts [62, 63, 64, 65].
  • Increase your consumption of fatty omega-3 rich fish [66].

4) Avoiding Alcohol

Lower your alcohol consumption or refrain from drinking altogether. Alcohol can increase triglyceride and VLDL-C levels [19, 67].

5) Quitting Smoking

Quit smoking. Tobacco increases VLDL-C [37, 38, 39].

6) Supplements

Discuss the following foods and supplements with your doctor. Research has shown they can help decrease triglyceride and therefore VLDL-C levels:

Genetics

Lipases

Lipases are a group of enzymes that help to break down VLDL. A mutation in the lipoprotein lipase gene has been associated with larger VLDL particles in people with metabolic syndrome. Other mutations in this gene result in low levels of the lipoprotein lipase protein and higher VLDL [83, 84].

People with another common mutation in the hepatic lipase gene have increased VLDL levels and a reduced ability to control VLDL levels after exercise [85].

Apolipoprotein E (ApoE)

ApoE is a protein found in VLDL molecules. As a result of mutations in the gene that encodes the protein, different versions exist. A version known as ApoE4 is found to produce more inflammation in the blood vessels after meals than the normal version, ApoE3 [86, 87].

Having a defective copy of ApoE contributes to high VLDL levels, but this factor alone does not significantly raise VLDL levels [88].

About the Author

Biljana Novkovic

Biljana Novkovic

PhD
Biljana received her PhD from Hokkaido University.
Before joining SelfHacked, she was a research scientist with extensive field and laboratory experience. She spent 4 years reviewing the scientific literature on supplements, lab tests and other areas of health sciences. She is passionate about releasing the most accurate science and health information available on topics, and she's meticulous when writing and reviewing articles to make sure the science is sound. She believes that SelfHacked has the best science that is also layperson-friendly on the web.

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