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We all know it is unhealthy to have high blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol. But what is even more concerning is when these conditions overlap.

Metabolic syndrome is a new buzzword in medicine. It refers to a group of five risk factors that occur together — high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a large waist circumference.

Any one of these conditions can pave the way for serious health problems. But when you have more than one, your risk of developing a heart attack, stroke, or type 2 diabetes increases dramatically.  

“Having this syndrome helps us identify people at the highest risk for developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease,” explains Divya Rajasekaran, MD, an endocrinologist at Summit Health. “It is critical we find these patients and treat them aggressively.”

Metabolic syndrome is all too common. Nearly 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome, according to the latest research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“The rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity among Americans is closely related to the rising rates of metabolic syndrome,” says Le Ha, MD, a cardiologist at Summit Health. “Extra weight, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity have been identified as mechanisms linking the components of metabolic syndrome.”

Criteria for Metabolic Syndrome

A person is considered to have metabolic syndrome when they have three or more of the following risk factors:

  • High blood sugar – 100 mg/dL or more when fasting.
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol – Less than 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women. Commonly thought of as the “good cholesterol,” HDL is protective against heart disease.
  • High levels of triglycerides – 150 mg/dL or more. Triglycerides are the most common fat in the body.
  • Large waist circumference – Greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women. This is also referred to as abnormal obesity or an apple-shaped body.
  • High blood pressure – 130/85 mm Hg or higher.

Risks of Metabolic Syndrome

People with metabolic syndrome are more likely to develop serious complications, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease – The arteries are a series of tubes that carry oxygen-filled blood to and from the heart. High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood can cause plaque to build up in the arteries, causing the tubes to harden and narrow. Eventually, this may lead to a blockage that interrupts the flow of blood resulting in a heart attack or stroke.
  • Type 2 diabetes - Many people with metabolic syndrome develop insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that moves sugar into cells so it can be used for energy. When insulin resistance occurs, the cells in the body are unable to use the hormone the way they should. This causes blood sugar levels to rise.

Research has shown that people with metabolic syndrome and obesity are ten times more likely to develop diabetes and twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease when compared to individuals without metabolic syndrome who were of a normal weight.

Treatment: Changing Your Ways with Diet and Exercise

Metabolic syndrome is not permanent. There are changes you can make to your diet and activity level that can reverse the condition — or reduce your chances of ever developing the disorder in the first place. Lifestyle modifications are the first line of defense, but medications may also be needed.

“Focusing on the idea that we can make a difference by modifying our food intake and increasing our activity is a big step in the right direction,” says Dr. Rajasekaran. “I tell my patients to address nutrition and activity aggressively for three to six months. If, despite their best efforts, the levels are still not at goal, then I recommend starting medications to control high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, and elevated sugars.”

Here are three changes you can make today to improve metabolic syndrome.

  • Lose weight - Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can be extremely helpful in improving blood pressure and minimizing the risk of developing diabetes, explains Dr. Ha. If a man weighs 200 pounds, that means shedding between 10 and 20 pounds.

“Not only is losing weight a big task, but also maintaining the weight loss is equally challenging,” says Dr. Ha. “For individuals who have problems with conservative measures, there are also medications or bariatric surgeries available to assist them.”Man and woman making food in the kitchen to help with metabolic syndrome

  • Eat nutritious foods - A healthy diet is the key to prevention. Fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains that are filled with fiber, and lean proteins like fish, chicken, and beans. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, salt, sugar, and saturated fat or trans fat.

“My patients are always surprised to see that they were able to bring down their blood sugar or blood pressure by incorporating a daily walk into their routine or cutting down on that bread or daily dessert,” notes Dr. Rajasekaran. If you are not sure where to start, a nutritionist can help you find ways to reduce calories and lose weight.

  • Stay Active - Exercise has countless benefits. It can help you lose weight, lower your risk of developing disease, and improve your mood.  Choose something you enjoy —take a brisk walk, join a group workout, or go for a swim. Vary it up so you do not get bored. Always check with your physician before you start any exercise program.

“It is recommended to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise daily. Increasing the amount and level of physical activity further enhances the beneficial effect,” says Dr. Ha.

Changing our habits to healthier choices is hard but possible, adds Dr. Rajasekaran. Start with slow changes—cut down from a full bagel to a half or pace around for the duration of your favorite TV show. Make a standing desk and move food away from your office. It may seem small, but these efforts can change your life.