What is Metabolic Syndrome?

What is Metabolic SyndromeBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

Metabolism can be defined as the biochemical processes that occur within a living cell or organism.  These processes are necessary for the maintenance of life and include growth, energy production and elimination of wastes. The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines metabolic syndrome as a group of risk factors that increase the chances of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.  Metabolic risk factors tend to occur together.  A diagnosis of three of the following risk factors is needed to be identified as metabolic syndrome:

  • Abdominal obesityCentral obesity is a key feature of the syndrome. People who have excess fat in the stomach area are at greater risk for developing heart disease.  A waist measurement of 35 inches or more for women or 40 inches or more for men is a metabolic risk factor.
  • High triglyceride level or taking medication to treat high triglyceridesTriglycerides are naturally occurring esters of fatty acids and glycerol.  A triglyceride level of 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or greater is considered high.
  • Low HDL cholesterol level or taking medication to treat low HDL cholesterol – Considered the good cholesterol, HDL helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.  A low HDL level raises the risk of heart disease.  HDL cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women is considered low.
  • High blood pressure or taking medication to treat high blood pressure –  High blood pressure can cause heart damage and contribute to arterial plaque buildup.  Systolic blood pressure (top number) of 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater, and diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 85 mm Hg or greater are considered high.
  • High fasting blood sugar or taking medication to treat high blood sugar –  High blood sugar is an early warning sign of diabetes.  Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or greater is considered elevated. 

There are other factors that raise the possibility of developing this condition:

  • AgeApproximately 40% of people with metabolic syndrome are in their 60’s.
  • RaceHispanics and Asians appear to be at greater risk.
  • Family history of diabetesA family history of type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes puts you at greater risk. 
  • StressProlonged stress can upset hormonal balances and can be considered an underlying cause.  High circulating cortisol levels may result in higher glucose and insulin levels.
  • Sedentary lifestyleInactivity leads to increased central adipose (fat) tissue, low HDL cholesterol levels, increased  triglycerides, high blood pressure and elevated glucose levels.  People who are not physically active are twice as likely to develop the complications of metabolic syndrome than people who exercise regularly.
  • Insulin resistanceWith this metabolic disorder, the body produces but does not effectively use insulin, resulting in increased glucose levels. Obesity and inactivity are major contributors for insulin resistance, which can lead to pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. 
  • Smoking A major risk factor for heart disease, smoking further raises the risk of developing metabolic syndrome by contributing to unhealthy cholesterol levels, elevated blood pressure and plaque buildup in the arteries. 
  • Dietary factors A diet rich in processed carbohydrates can promote insulin resistance.  Diets with excessive amounts of high glycemic index foods have been linked to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing metabolic syndrome.  According to the American Heart  Association (AHA), approximately 35% of the U.S. population may have this condition. Prevalence will  increase as the population ages.  People with metabolic syndrome often have two other conditions; constant low grade inflammation throughout the body and excessive blood clotting.  Although the origin of excess clotting can be genetically based, most often it is an acquired condition caused by smoking and obesity.  About 85% of people with type 2 diabetes are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, placing  them in a high risk category for developing heart disease. 

Fortunately, many of the factors that contribute to metabolic syndrome can be addressed by modifying your lifestyle.  Set realistic short term goals as you begin to make these healthy changes.  If medications are prescribed in addition to lifestyle changes, work closely with your healthcare provider and take your medications as directed. 

The AHA recommends these 7 steps to significantly reduce your risk and knowingly improve your overall health:

  1. Get active.  Physical activity can increase the length and quality of your life. Say yes to your good health by prioritizing time for exercise.  Moderate intensity physical activity directly benefits your insulin response. 
  2. Eat better.  If you want to build a healthy body, eat a wide variety of nutritious foods low in saturated fats, sodium, and sugars.  Include fiber rich whole grains, lean proteins, low fat dairy and lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. 
  3. Lose weight.  Statistics shows that 2/3 of the American adult population is overweight or obese.  Shedding excess pounds reduces the burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels and skeleton.  Losing weight, and maintaining the weight loss significantly lowers your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke by lowering blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.  Balance healthy eating with a healthy level of exercise to achieve your weight loss goals. 
  4. Stop smoking.  If you want to live a long, healthy life, do whatever it takes to break the nicotine addiction habit. Smoking puts your good health at chronic risk and is a leading cause of early death.
  5. Control cholesterol. Some individuals may require medication to control their cholesterol levels.   Activity, maintaining a healthy weight and a low cholesterol, high fiber diet can help improve cholesterol levels.  Lowering your cholesterol levels ensures adequate blood supply and aids in circulatory organ function while reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke.  
  6. Manage blood pressure.  Factors to reduce blood pressure include eating a low sodium, heart healthy diet, exercising regularly and managing stress.  Some may also require prescription medication to reduce blood pressure
  7. Reduce blood sugar. Lowered blood sugar helps protect your vital organs.  Reducing excess blood sugar gives you the best chance for overall improvements in your health by slowing the progression of long term complications.  Lower the amount of simple sugars you consume that are found in soda, candy and sweet desserts. 

Recognizing risk factors for metabolic syndrome is a wakeup call for action.  Get serious about improving your health and make the changes necessary to ensure a healthy future.  Even though controlling weight with lifestyle changes is challenging, it produces long term health rewards by lowering the risk for type 2 diabetes, lowering blood glucose levels, and reducing other heart disease risk factors.

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