You’ve been told you have high blood pressure and maybe your blood sugar is higher than it should be (but you don’t have diabetes yet). You are also carrying that “spare tire” around your waist. If so, you may actually have something called Metabolic Syndrome. Also known as Syndrome X or Insulin Resistance Syndrome , metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that together increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Having just one of these conditions – high blood pressure, central obesity, elevated cholesterol or blood sugar – contributes to your risk of these serious diseases. However, when present in combination your risk increases exponentially.
Research into the complex underlying process linking this group of conditions is ongoing and as the name suggests, metabolic syndrome is linked to the body’s metabolism and in particular to something called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the body can’t use the hormone insulin efficiently. Insulin is made by the pancreas and is responsible for transporting glucose from the blood into cells of the body where it can be further utilized. Some people are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance but many people develop insulin resistance as a direct result of being overweight, like excess body fat (especially around the waist), and physical inactivity.
Not all experts agree on the exact definition of metabolic syndrome. But physicians have talked about this combination of risk factors for years and regardless of how it’s exactly defined, this collection of risk factors appears to be becoming more and more common. Risk factors for developing metabolic syndrome include: age (increased prevalence with age but it does occur in school aged children too); race – Hispanics and Blacks seem to be a greater risk than other races; obesity – a BMI of >25 and an apple vs. pear body shape; family history of type 2 diabetes or a history of diabetes during pregnancy. In addition, having other diseases such as hypertension or polycystic ovarian syndrome also contributes to an increased risk. Today, it is estimated that over 50 million Americans have metabolic syndrome.
The American Heart Association and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend that the Metabolic Syndrome be identified as the presence of three or more of these components:
1. Elevated waist circumference
Men – equal or greater than 40 inches
Women – equal or greater than 35 inches
2. Elevated blood triglycerides
Equal to or greater than 150 mg/dL
3. Reduced HDL (“good”) cholesterol
Men – less than 40 mg/dL
Women – less than 50 mg/dL
4. Elevated blood pressure
Equal to or greater than 130/85 mm Hg
5. Elevated fasting glucose
Equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL
If you know you have at least one of these risk factors you could have the others and just don’t know it, so it’s well worth checking in with your doctor and asking about whether or not you should be tested for other components of this syndrome.
Whether you have one or all of the five risk factors, diet, weight management and lifestyle are the place to start. Committing to a healthier diet, getting more physical activity, losing weight and if you smoke, quitting can help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Smoking cigarettes increases insulin resistance and blood pressure and worsens the health consequences associated with Metabolic Syndrome. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about a smoking cessation program today.
Your diet should be balanced and rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein foods like fish and white meat chicken. It’s important to cut back on foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Avoid fast foods, sugar laden sodas and cut down the use of the salt shaker. To boost your physical activity level – find activities you really enjoy and set a goal to engage in moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking, jogging, or swimming for 30 to 60 minutes a day, most days of the week. If you haven’t been very active recently, have physical limitations or a chronic health condition, talk to your doctor first about the right exercise program for you. Start slow and gradually increase the frequency and duration of your activity.
Do you have a lot of weight to lose? Don’t worry, even losing as little as 5 to 10% of your body weight can significantly improve how your body uses insulin (increases insulin sensitivity), can also lower your blood pressure, raise your HDL (“good”) cholesterol and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes.