Metabolic Syndrome: Could You Have It?

Metabolic Syndrome: Could You Have It?

Millions of Americans have a health condition that could increase their risk of developing 10 other serious medical problems, and they don’t even know it. The condition is called metabolic syndrome (also known as syndrome X or insulin resistance syndrome), and it may affect as many as 47 million Americans.

The list of health problems that metabolic syndrome can lead to is long and concerning. It doubles a person's risk of both heart attack and stroke and also may lead to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fatty liver disease, cholesterol gallstones, asthma, and even some forms of cancer.

But here's the good news: Adding a brisk walk to your routine every day may be enough to help stop this syndrome -- and all of the accompanying health ills -- in its tracks.

Do You Have It?

Unfortunately, most of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome operate silently and are hardly noticeable from the outside. Finding out if you have the syndrome requires knowing several health measures obtained only through medical testing. Ask yourself the following questions to help determine whether a doctor's visit is in order:

  • Are you overweight?
  • Do you carry excess weight around your middle?
  • Do you exercise infrequently and eat mostly unhealthful foods?
  • Are you over age 60?
  • Does someone in your family have diabetes?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Do you have heart disease?
  • Are you African American or Mexican American?

Answering yes to any of the above questions means that you have at least one personal factor that may be cause for concern.

A Cluster of 5 Factors
Obtaining the following five health measures will help you and your doctor determine if you have metabolic syndrome. When grouped together, these five factors indicate the condition is present.

  • Abdominal obesity is the most obvious mark of metabolic syndrome. Obesity in general has been linked to metabolic syndrome, but the amount of fat around the waistline correlates even more closely. For men, a waistline of 40 inches or more is considered high risk. For women, a waistline of 35 inches or more is high risk.
  • Elevated blood pressure is another characteristic of metabolic syndrome. Anything above about 130/85 mm Hg may be a risk factor.
  • High blood triglycerides also put you at risk. Anything just above the normal, healthy level (150 mg/dL) is a marker of metabolic syndrome.
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol is an important factor in diagnosing metabolic syndrome. For men, low HDL is below 40 mg/dL. For women, low HDL is below 50 mg/dL.
  • Insulin resistance is the defining risk factor for metabolic syndrome. If your body is not able to process blood sugar efficiently, or if your fasting blood glucose level is at or above 110 mg/dL, then it is likely that you have insulin resistance.

Having three of these five characteristics can indicate the presence of metabolic syndrome. But only a doctor can make this determination, so if you feel you are at risk, make an appointment with your healthcare professional today. An early diagnosis may help prevent the serious health problems associated with metabolic syndrome.

If you do have the syndrome, your doctor can also introduce you to immediate lifestyle changes that will help to put an end to this dangerous and life-threatening condition.

Walk Off the Weight
Reversing metabolic syndrome may be as straightforward as exercising more and losing extra weight. Weight loss can have a beneficial effect on all characteristics of metabolic syndrome, from your blood fat levels to your body's resistance to insulin. An exercise program -- something as simple as walking a couple of miles each day -- may be enough to help you lose weight and start reversing the metabolic syndrome trend.

Watch What You Eat
You can also make basic changes in your diet that will help. For example, by switching to healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as canola, olive, and peanut oils, you may reduce your body's LDL("bad" cholesterol) levels and increase HDL ("good" cholesterol) levels. Poly- and monounsaturated fats are also found in certain foods, such as nuts and avocados. If you need help managing your diet and cutting back on unhealthy foods, a nutrition therapist can set you up with a healthful eating plan that works for you.

Maybe Medication
In addition to lifestyle changes, medication therapies may be useful. Two promising types of drugs for treating metabolic syndrome are insulin sensitizers, such as thiazolidinediones, and metformin. However, no trials have been done to test their effectiveness in preventing cardiovascular disease in people with metabolic syndrome. Medication may also help to treat some of the factors, such as high blood pressure, involved in this syndrome.

Take Action to Avoid the Syndrome
It's not clear what causes metabolic syndrome. Some people may be genetically predisposed to it, while others may have a combination of lifestyle and medical factors that put them at risk. But metabolic syndrome is preventable. By getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, there is a strong possibility that you can avoid this condition. Knowing the consequences of metabolic syndrome might be just the motivation you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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