Oklahoma is one of six states in the nation where approximately one in three of its citizens are obese. Of those that don’t qualify as “obese,” approximately half are overweight. Recently, the term “metabolic syndrome” has made its way into medical literature, but many people are still unclear about its meaning. In fact, some experts disagree about the criteria for diagnosis, and even whether metabolic syndrome exists as a distinct medical condition. So exactly what is metabolic syndrome, and who is at risk? How does it relate to obesity, diet, and lifestyle?
Definition and Symptoms
The phrase metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions that occur together, all of which increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Having one component of metabolic syndrome means the patient is at greater risk of developing the others. These conditions include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated insulin levels
- Waist circumference (men greater than 40”, women greater than 35”)
- Abnormal cholesterol levels (reduced HDL, elevated triglycerides)
The American Heart Institute recommends that metabolic syndrome be identified as the presence of three or more of the above conditions. The more components present, the greater the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Research into the underlying processes linking this group of conditions is ongoing, but as the name suggests, metabolic syndrome is closely tied to the body’s metabolism, and insulin resistance appears to be a major factor. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that helps control the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.
Typically, the digestive system breaks down some of the food ingested into glucose. The blood then carries the glucose to the body’s tissues, where it can be used as fuel. Insulin helps glucose to enter the cells, but when a person is insulin-resistant, the cells don’t respond normally to insulin, and this process is interrupted. The body reacts by producing more insulin, resulting in higher than normal levels of both insulin and glucose in the blood.
While it may not be high enough to qualify as diabetes, an elevated blood glucose level still interferes with the body’s processes. Increased insulin raises triglyceride and blood fat levels and may interfere with kidney function, leading to elevated blood pressure. These combined effects of insulin resistance are what put patients at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
A number of factors increase the likelihood of having metabolic syndrome. Perhaps most significant is age, as the prevalence of metabolic syndrome increases dramatically with age, with about 40 percent of people showing signs by the time they are 60. It is important to note, however, that obesity is perhaps the biggest risk factor.
Some research indicates that more than ten percent of American schoolchildren exhibit components of metabolic syndrome. Anyone considered obese (defined as having a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher), is at risk.
Race is another risk factor, as Hispanics and Asians appear to be at the greatest risk for developing metabolic syndrome. Having a family history of diabetes or a history of gestational diabetes also increases a person’s risk. Other diseases, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and polycystic ovarian syndrome have also been identified as risk factors.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Getting regular checkups is the first line of defense in preventing metabolic
syndrome. While your healthcare practitioner may not be specifically looking for this condition, they are aware of the signs and symptoms and will likely counsel patients on the importance of lifestyle modifications.
Aggressive lifestyle changes are the first line of defense, and can improve all components of metabolic syndrome. Exercise is one of the first recommendations made by many doctors. Adding 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every day can be of major benefit.
Weight loss is also an important factor, and a loss of five to ten percent of body weight can reduce insulin levels and blood pressure, decreasing the risk of diabetes. A balanced diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains has been found to offer important health benefits for people who have components of metabolic syndrome.
Finally, smoking cigarettes increases insulin resistance, and for this reason— and about a hundred others—patients should stop smoking immediately. If you have concerns about the effects of metabolic syndrome, talk to a healthcare provider about ways in which you can reduce or eliminate these conditions and move on to a healthier lifestyle!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.