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Metabolic Syndrome: What it is, What to do About It

It's estimated that one in three Americans suffers from a condition that Steven Nissen, M.D., a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, has dubbed the "disease of the new millennium."

Metabolic syndrome, as it's more commonly known, is actually a name used to describe a group of symptoms, or "metabolic risk factors." These symptoms increase the risk of a number of diseases, including:

Storing fat around your abdomen is a component of metabolic syndrome.

  • Coronary heart disease

  • Stroke

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Breast cancer

  • Infertility

In all, it's thought that over 50 million Americans have it, but the syndrome (also known as syndrome X and insulin resistance syndrome) often goes undetected.

Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome

Having any one of the following conditions increases your health risks; the more conditions you have, the greater your risk. The National Institutes of Health says that metabolic syndrome begins with three or more of the following symptoms:

  • A waist circumference greater than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men

  • An HDL (good) cholesterol level lower than 50 in women and 40 in men

  • Blood pressure of 130 over 80 or greater

  • Fasting blood sugar between 110 and 126

  • Triglycerides (a form of fat in the bloodstream) over 150

"Each of the five elements that make up metabolic syndrome increases your risk of heart disease and stroke," says Daniel Einhorn, M.D., medical director of the Scripps Whittier Institute for Diabetes in La Jolla, California. "But the combination of the five makes your risks especially high."

Underlying Cause of Metabolic Syndrome

It's thought that insulin resistance is what's behind metabolic syndrome. The food you eat normally gets broken down into sugar (glucose), which enters your cells for fuel. Insulin is made by your pancreas to help the glucose enter cells.

However, if you are insulin resistant, your cells don't respond to the insulin, and, as a result, your body keeps making more and more of it. The end result is an increased level of both insulin and glucose in the blood. Although in metabolic syndrome the levels may not be high enough to qualify as diabetes, they still interfere with your body's normal functions by:

  • Raising your levels of triglycerides and other blood fats

  • Increasing your blood pressure

  • Increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and more

According to the Mayo Clinic, one study found that men with three factors of metabolic syndrome had close to twice the risk of having a heart attack and three times the risk of developing heart disease as those with no factors.

Exercising for 30-60 minutes almost everyday is a key way to prevent, and treat, metabolic syndrome.

Factors That Increase Your Risk

There are several factors that raise the risk of metabolic syndrome.

Age: Forty percent of people in their 60s have metabolic syndrome, compared to under 10 percent in their 20s. However, while the risk of metabolic syndrome does increase with age, younger people can be affected. One study found, according to the Mayo Clinic, that one in eight schoolchildren already have three or more components of the disease.

Race: Hispanics and Asians have a greater risk than other races.

Obesity: Having a body mass index (BMI) over 25 increases the risk, as does abdominal fat (an "apple" body shape).

History of diabetes: A family history of type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) increases the risk.

Other diseases: Diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease or polycystic ovary syndrome increase the risk.

What to do if You Have Metabolic Syndrome

Experts recommend aggressive lifestyle changes when it comes to metabolic syndrome. The three key changes are:

  • Exercising for 30-60 minutes a day, at a moderate intensity level.

  • Losing weight. Even losing just 5 percent to 10 percent of your body weight reduces insulin levels, blood pressure and your risk of diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

  • Quitting smoking, if you do. Smoking increases insulin resistance and worsens metabolic syndrome.

How to Prevent Metabolic Syndrome

The keys to preventing metabolic syndrome are the same as those for preventing many other types of disease:

  • Eat a healthy diet, which focuses on fruits and vegetables and lean meats. Fiber-rich foods can also help reduce insulin levels.

    In fact, one Harvard Medical School study found that people with high-fiber diets had a much lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

    Eating healthy also means avoiding processed foods, fried foods and excess sweets, and experimenting with healthy herbs and spices.

  • Exercise, about 30-60 minutes, most days of the week.

  • Monitor your health. Check your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels on a regular basis. If they are no longer in the healthy ranges, make additional positive changes to your diet and activity level.

Recommended Reading

Chromium: It May Help Prevent Heart Attacks, Improve Cholesterol & Much More ... So Are You Getting Enough?

Chronic Sinusitis: What it is, What the Symptoms Are, Common Treatments, Potential Cures


The Mayo Clinic: Metabolic Syndrome

The Mysterious Metabolic Syndrome

American Heart Association: Metabolic Syndrome

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