It seems to me that metabolic syndrome is the newest, “hottest”, diagnosis. But does metabolic syndrome deserve the attention it’s getting? I went on a mission to see if metabolic syndrome is just hype or if it’s a real public wellness issue.
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic Syndrome is a name of a cluster of conditions – increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels – that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome has also been known as Syndrome X, insulin resistance syndrome, and dysmetabolic syndrome.
How do you research Metabolic Syndrome?
To start off my research on metabolic syndrome, I did what everyone does… looked it up on Wikipedia. To my amazement, the website states that metabolic syndrome affects 34% of the US population and increases with age. I was astounded. I did not realize that metabolic syndrome was so widespread in the US. Of course, Wikipedia can get things wrong, so naturally I did some more digging. Sure enough, most of the research supports this claim including the American Heart Association and Centers for Disease Control. With this much scrutiny and backing from well-respected institutions, I can safely say that metabolic syndrome is a legitimate concern for our public health.
Components of Metabolic Syndrome
In general, a person who has metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as someone who doesn’t have metabolic syndrome. Having even one of the 5 risk factors raises your risk for heart disease. It is important to try and control all risk factors.
In order to have a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, you must have three of the five following traits.
- Large waist circumference – greater than 35 inches for women and greater than 40 inches for men.
- High triglyceride level or you are on a medicine to treat triglycerides. A high triglyceride level is defined as greater than 150mg/dL. Triglycerides are simply fat that is found in your blood.
- A low HDL cholesterol level or you are on medicine to treat. A low HDL cholesterol level is defined as less than 40mg/dL. HDL is the “good” cholesterol because is removes the cholesterol from your arteries. I have heard it described as trash collectors, picking up the excess “bad” cholesterol and removing it.
- High blood pressure or you are on medicine to treat high blood pressure. High blood pressure is defined as greater than 130/85. Blood pressure is the pressure your blood puts on the walls of the arteries as it passes through your body. If this level is elevated for long periods of time it can damage your heart and lead to plaque build up.
- High fasting blood sugar or you are on medicine to treat high blood sugar. A high fasting blood sugar is anything greater than 100mg/dL and may be an early sign of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, fasting blood sugar is the level of sugar in your blood after about 8 hours of not eating. Usually it is taken in the morning and is a good picture of whether the insulin hormone in your body is able to break down the sugar you have consumed.
The scary thing is, except for waist circumference, these traits can go unnoticed. But problems associated with metabolic syndrome develop over time and usually worsen if left untreated. So if you know you have one component, then ask your doctor to test for the others.
Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance
Many traits of metabolic syndrome are also associated with insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone secreted by the pancreas that enables blood sugar to enter the cells for use as fuel. But insulin resistance causes cells to lose their sensitivity to insulin. So as sugar levels in the blood increase, the pancreas tries to overcompensate and produce even more insulin, which ultimately leads to the characteristic symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
Risk Factors for Metabolic Syndrome
Some risk factors are unavoidable (like age) and genetically driven (like race). However, some of the following risk factors for metabolic syndrome can be avoided through diet and exercise. The risk factors are:
- Age – over 60 years old
- Race – Hispanics and Asians are at a greater risk
- Obesity – particularly waist circumference
- Diabetes – Gestational diabetes or a family history of type 2 diabetes
- Other diseases – cardiovascular disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or polycystic ovary syndrome
RECOMMENDED READING: 5 Steps to Prevent Diabetes
Preventing Metabolic Syndrome
Like I said earlier, metabolic syndrome increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There is no quick and easy fix to avoid developing metabolic syndrome. But when has “quick and easy” ever been a long-term fix? Never.
The good news is, there is something you can do it about. Once again, we come back to the tried and true: a healthy lifestyle with good diet and adequate exercise. And it doesn’t have to be sprouts and daily marathon sessions. But focusing on sustainably healthy practices can prevent the development of or reverse the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome:
- Adequate exercise of 30 or more minutes five times a week. A brisk walk is a great way to get started.
- Get to your ideal body weight. Losing weight will reduce your risk of diabetes and improve blood pressure. You can see results with as little loss as 5-10% of body weight.
RECOMMENDED READING: What’s My Ideal Weight?
- Eating a healthy diet can also help to reduce the traits of metabolic syndrome. I would recommend a Mediterranean style diet with increased fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and high fiber.
- Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to stop smoking.
- Overuse of alcohol. The greatest danger with alcohol and metabolic syndrome is the additional, empty calories that are consumed. Beer and wine contain carbohydrates and can provide an additional 120 – 150 calories. While one ounce of distilled spirits usually only contain 60 calories, the beverages it can be mixed with are frequently high in calories.
Metabolic Syndrome… don’t panic but don’t ignore it!
In conclusion, metabolic syndrome is widespread in the United States and has become a legitimate public health concern. Because the traits of metabolic syndrome can go unnoticed, it can go undiagnosed for years. The longer metabolic syndrome goes untreated, the worse the symptoms will get and the higher our risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes will be.
But that doesn’t mean we need to panic about it. As you have seen, metabolic syndrome is mostly a byproduct of our culture of poor diet and lack of exercise, both of which we can control. As for the genetic issues we can’t control, we want to be well-informed and know our risk factors. The more knowledge we have, the better we can address any potential issues. But as is usually the case, eating right and exercising will go a long way towards a healthier lifestyle, ensuring we are doing everything we can do to keep God’s temple healthy.