What Is Metabolic Syndrome

Table of Contents:

  • What is Metabolic Syndrome?
  • Components of Metabolic Syndrome
  • Risk Factors for Metabolic Syndrome
  • Consequences of Metabolic Syndrome for Health
  • Prevention and Treatment of Metabolic Syndrome

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

When treating patients with cardiovascular disease, doctors realized that many patients had a similar cluster of symptoms. Each disease alone may increase risk of chronic health problems, but several of the conditions co-occurring compounds your risk. Scientists have dubbed this cluster of conditions “metabolic syndrome” because the majority of included conditions are related to the body’s metabolic activity.

Scientific Definition of Metabolic Syndrome

The exact definition of metabolic syndrome differs slightly depending on who is using the term. However, most scientists agree that metabolic syndrome includes the following five conditions:

  • Central obesity
  • Hypertension
  • High blood sugar
  • Elevated triglycerides
  • Low HDL cholesterol levels

People with three or more of these conditions have metabolic syndrome. This syndrome affects approximately 1 in 3 Americans.

Understanding the Components of Metabolic Syndrome

Each component of metabolic syndrome increases risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. Emerging scientific research is further defining and characterizing metabolic syndrome.

  • Central obesity. Central obesity refers to fat deposits that accumulate in the abdominal region. This is commonly known as an “apple shaped” body, as opposed to a “pear shaped” body where fat accumulates on the hips. Central obesity is often defined as a waist circumference of more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women.
  • Hypertension. Elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, is a component of metabolic syndrome. Blood pressure is the force of the blood that passes through your arteries. Hypertension is an indication that excess stress is being placed on the arteries. Furthermore, hypertension may lead to accumulation of plaques in the arteries, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Having a systolic blood pressure (top number when you have blood pressure measured) over 130 or diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) higher than 85 indicates hypertension.
  • High blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar is a risk factor for diabetes. Fasting glucose levels above 100 mg/dL are a sign of metabolic syndrome. This is the cutoff typically used for the “prediabetes” designation.
  • Elevated triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. Having a high triglyceride count indicates that your body receives more calories from food than it needs. It converts these calories into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. Triglyceride levels higher than 150 mg/dL are an indicator of metabolic syndrome.
  • Low HDL cholesterol levels. The body has two primary forms of cholesterol: LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and HDL, or “good” cholesterol. Having high LDL cholesterol levels increases risk of cardiovascular disease, but monitoring your HDL levels is also important. Low HDL levels are an indicator that your body cannot effectively clear cholesterol from the bloodstream, increasing the likelihood that it will develop into dangerous plaques.

Risk Factors for Metabolic Syndrome

Certain risk factors increase the likelihood that you will develop metabolic syndrome. Following are known risk factors for the syndrome:

  • Age. Higher age is associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome.
  • Overweight or obesity. Carrying more weight increases your risk, particularly if your body has a tendency to store weight in the abdominal region.
  • Diabetes. A family history of type 2 diabetes or experiencing gestational diabetes increases your risk of metabolic syndrome.
  • Race. Rates of metabolic syndrome are elevated among Asians and Hispanics, suggesting that race may be a risk factor.
  • Insulin resistance. Insulin helps the body move blood sugar into cells to be converted into energy. People with insulin resistance cannot use their insulin effectively and are at a higher risk for metabolic syndrome.
  • Certain diseases. People with a history of polycystic ovary syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome.

Consequences of Metabolic Syndrome for Health

Research continues to accumulate about the health consequences of metabolic syndrome. One of the biggest potential consequences is cardiovascular disease. On their own, each of the components of metabolic syndrome increases risk of cardiovascular disease. Taken together, these risk factors are not simply added up. Rather, the presence of several conditions comprising metabolic syndrome may multiply risk for cardiovascular disease.

Patients with metabolic syndrome are also at increased risk for diabetes, particularly if they have insulin resistance of high fasting blood sugar levels. Individuals with metabolic syndrome may be 5 times more likely to develop diabetes. They are also at higher risk of stroke.

Finally, researchers are only beginning to understand the effects of metabolic syndrome on brain functioning. Some recent evidence suggests that patients with metabolic system have slower processing speed and more executive dysfunction than healthy controls. Executive dysfunction refers to difficulty with complex reasoning, switching between tasks, regulating thinking abilities, and being cognitively flexible. Metabolic syndrome may increase risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia, although more research is needed to tease apart these relationships.

Prevention and Treatment of Metabolic Syndrome

Fortunately, the conditions that make up metabolic syndrome are largely treatable. The best approach is to make lifestyle changes that decrease your risk. These include:

  • Weight loss. Talk to your doctor about losing weight. Reducing your body weight by even 5 to 10 percent can improve blood sugar regulation, reduce central obesity, and improve cholesterol levels.
  • Frequent exercise. Doctors recommend getting 30 minutes of aerobic activity at least 5 days per week. This could be as simple as brisk walking, swimming, dancing, or biking. Aerobic exercise helps you maintain a healthy blood pressure, stimulates weight loss, and can combat high cholesterol.
  • Dietary changes. Altering your diet can address all 5 conditions that comprise metabolic syndrome. Wherever possible, replace refined sugars with whole grain products. Also aim to eat lean protein from animal sources whenever possible. Finally, opt for foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which improve heart health.
  • Decrease chronic stress. Chronic stress is a potential risk factor for metabolic syndrome. Meditation, practicing yoga, doing deep breathing exercises, or going for a walk outside are great ways to de-stress.