What Is Metabolic Syndrome & Can It Be Reversed?
As the years go by, it can feel like health issues just keep piling on — one after the other.
Maybe it started with cautionary warnings from your doctor about your blood sugar and your weight, but now he or she is officially concerned about prediabetes and obesity (particularly the excess weight at your waistline), as well as your blood pressure, lipid or cholesterol levels.
The term "metabolic syndrome" is mentioned and you immediately wonder: What is metabolic syndrome?
"Metabolic syndrome, also known as insulin resistance syndrome or syndrome X, is a combination of several conditions that — together — increase a person's risk of developing diabetes and heart disease," says Dr. Karla Saint Andre, endocrinologist at Houston Methodist.
Its prevalence is increasing worldwide, and about a third of the U.S. population suffers from metabolic syndrome. The risk is equal in men and women.
The health issues included within metabolic syndrome are:
- High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
- Excess fat around the waistline (visceral obesity)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High level of triglycerides
- Low levels of good cholesterol
"If your doctor diagnoses you with metabolic syndrome, it's important to take action. Through lifestyle changes and medications, metabolic syndrome may be able to be reversed, reducing your risk of developing a more serious health condition."
Whether you have a family history of metabolic syndrome or you've just been diagnosed, here's everything you need to know to better understand this condition and five steps you can take to prevent or potentially reverse it.
Why is metabolic syndrome dangerous?
Metabolic syndrome is characterized by a state of cellular resistance to insulin, a hormone important for turning the sugar you eat into the energy needed to fuel your body.
"Among other very important functions, insulin helps the sugar in your bloodstream enter your cells, where it's then stored or transformed into energy. But if your cells become less responsive to insulin, sugar has a harder time making it inside your cells, leading to high levels of sugar in your bloodstream," explains Dr. Saint Andre.
This reduced responsiveness to insulin leads to chronic, systemic inflammation and can have other dramatic effects on your body, including:
- Damage to your blood vessels
- Weight gain
- Worsening insulin resistance
"Weight gain, particularly gaining excessive visceral fat, further worsens inflammation since this type of fat is also proinflammatory," adds Dr. Saint Andre.
Ultimately, metabolic syndrome is associated with a wide range of diseases, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Fatty liver disease
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Obstructive sleep apnea
How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?
It takes more than just having high blood sugar or too much belly fat to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. That's because this syndrome is actually a cluster of metabolic abnormalities, and a person must have several health issues associated to be diagnosed with it.
The criteria for metabolic syndrome include having:
- Impaired fasting glucose (high blood sugar) – 100 mg/dL or higher
- Excess abdominal fat – a BMI of 30 or higher and/or waist circumference larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women
- High blood pressure – 135/80 mmHg or higher
- Elevated triglycerides – 150 mg/dL or higher
- Low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as good cholesterol – less than 40 mg/dL for men or less than 50mg/dL for women
"If a person meets three of these five criteria, he or she is considered to have metabolic syndrome," says Dr. Saint-Andre.
Is metabolic syndrome reversible?
Metabolic syndrome itself might not come with any symptoms, but the serious health conditions that are silently occurring in this syndrome can lead to very serious and catastrophic complications.
For instance, symptoms of diabetes can range from inconvenient (increased thirst and need to urinate) to more severe (blurry vision, poor wound healing and increased risk of infections). And let's not forget the increase risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
"There are several risk factors for developing metabolic syndrome, many of which are modifiable — making it possible to either prevent or reverse this syndrome if permanent cellular damage has not yet been caused," explains Dr. Saint Andre.
However, Dr. Saint Andre adds that if several conditions associated with this syndrome run in your family, such as type 2 diabetes or obesity, you will need to work harder to prevent it than someone who doesn't have a genetic predisposition.
And, if you already have significant damage to your heart, blood vessels and other organs, metabolic syndrome is much harder to reverse.
"This is why it's extremely important to prevent metabolic syndrome or seek treatment as early as possible if it's already present," says Dr. Saint Andre.
If your doctor warns you about or diagnoses metabolic syndrome, consider taking these important steps to preventing or reversing it:
1. Lose weight and/or maintain a healthy weight
A study from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease found that even losing just a little weight — 5 to 7% of your body weight — can reduce your risk of developing diabetes by more than half.
"In particular, visceral fat found along the waistline contributes to systemic inflammation, so it's important to reduce this," explains Dr. Saint Andre. "The common ways to reduce fat — diet and exercise — will also help you lose proinflammatory visceral fat."
When it comes to losing weight, consider a mix of cardio for at least 30 minutes, five days a week and two to three days of strength-training exercises. While cardio can help you burn a lot of calories during your workout, the muscle built during strength training can help boost your metabolism so you burn calories even when you're not exercising.
"Strength training doesn't have to be as intimidating as it sounds. I recommend starting with body weight exercises, which are movements that use your own body weight to help improve your strength," adds Dr. Saint Andre.
2. Eat healthy
A healthy diet can help you avoid blood sugar spikes, lower your blood pressure and lose weight — all of which can help prevent or undo metabolic syndrome.
"A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, a moderate amount of unsaturated fats and lean protein sources, such as fish, chicken, eggs and beans," says Dr. Saint Andre.
When eating healthy, there are also foods you'll want to try limiting, such as:
- Sugary drinks and snacks
- High salt meals
- Unhealthy fats, such as saturated fats and trans fats
3. Move more, sit less
Believe it or not, physical inactivity (typically measured via how much a person sits every day) is associated with metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
So, it's time to ask yourself: Are you sitting too much?
"Physical activity comes with a range of health benefits, including lowering your risk of heart disease and weight loss," says Dr. Saint Andre. "The recommended amount of daily physical activity is 30 minutes of exercise, and this can be as easy as taking a brisk walk every day and choosing to take the stairs over the elevator."
4. Know your family medical history
Metabolic syndrome, as well as several of the individual conditions within it, might actually "run in your family" — meaning the genes you inherited could influence your risk of developing this syndrome.
"While some risk factors can be modified, having a genetic predisposition for metabolic syndrome is something you can't change. This doesn't mean you will develop this syndrome, it just means you may be more likely to, especially if you don't take the steps above to reduce your risk," says Dr. Saint Andre.
The easiest way for you to know if you have a genetic predisposition to this syndrome is to learn about your family's health history.
5. Stay on top of your health
If you're diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as an endocrinologist — a doctor who specializes in endocrine disorder such as diabetes — or a cardiologist.
Make sure you see your doctor or specialist regularly, take any medications he or she may prescribe and continue to make the lifestyle choices above so you can ensure your condition is as well-managed as possible," says Dr. Saint Andre.