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According to the American Heart Association, 23 percent of American adults have metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome, which was identified as such only about 20 years ago, is as common as the flu or as colds. It is a serious condition, but it is not a disease in itself, rather a set of risk factors that endanger your overall health. Specifically, it increases your risk of developing diabetes five times and it doubles your chances of developing heart disease and/or coronary artery disease, both of which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
What are these risk factors? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the American Heart Association, there are six factors that make up metabolic syndrome:
Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors
- Abdominal obesity. This is defined as having a waist measuring 35 inches or more in women and 40 inches or more in men or as having an “apple-shaped” body. Excess fat in the stomach area is a much greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat elsewhere in the body, such as in the hips or thighs.
- High triglycerides and/or taking medications to treat high triglycerides. These substances are a type of fat found in the blood. Your level is considered high if it exceeds 150 mg/dl.
- Low levels of “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins or HDL). This type of cholesterol is known as “good” because it helps remove cholesterol deposits in the arteries. A low level of HDL increases your risk of developing heart disease. For men, a low level would be below 40 mg/dl, for women, less than 50 mg/dl. Taking medicine to treat overall high cholesterol is also a risk factor.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) or taking medication to treat it. Blood pressure is the force with which blood pushes on the walls of the arteries as the heart beats. If this pressure rises and stays high, it can damage your heart and contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Blood pressure is considered high above 135/85 mm Hg. The first number is the systolic reading, the second number is the diastolic. Both are important.
- High fasting blood sugar levels. A level of glucose in the blood, while fasting, of 100 mg/dl or more, or taking medications to treat high blood sugar. This is due to insulin resistance since the body cannot properly use insulin.
Each of these factors alone represents a health problem you should attend to. Imagine, then, how worrisome it is when you have more than one. If you have at three or more of them, then you suffer from metabolic syndrome.
The Causes of Metabolic Syndrome
As the syndrome includes a variety of risk factors, the causes are also varied. Some of them are out of your control. They are:
- Genetics: If your family, for example, exhibits a tendency for diabetes, insulin resistance or hypertension, you have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome.
- Race: the syndrome is more common among Latinos, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans than among whites.
- Age: The risk of metabolic syndrome increases with the passage of time.
On the other hand, some of the other causes of metabolic syndrome are related to lifestyle, and those you can influence. They are:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a sedentary lifestyle
- Having insulin resistance: Remember that insulin is a hormone that helps convert blood glucose (sugar) into energy. In people with insulin resistance, their bodies produce levels that are not sufficient to properly metabolize glucose. They need to produce more and more insulin to deal with the increasingly high levels of blood sugar, which eventually may culminate in diabetes. Large waists (as mentioned previously) or big bellies can be an indication that there is insulin resistance.
Other conditions can also play an important role in the development of metabolic syndrome. Some, for example, are related to hormonal imbalances, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (a tendency to develop ovarian cysts, obesity, acne, hair growth, infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods). And it is known that people with fatty liver disease, sleep apnea or who have gallstones are more likely to develop the syndrome.
In addition to the above causes, it is important to consider that the risk of metabolic syndrome can increase if:
- You take medicines that make you gain weight or that alter your blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol in the blood.
- You have a diabetic parent or sibling
- You have a family history of diabetes
How is Metabolic Syndrome Treated?
Once your doctor determines that you have at least three risk factors, he or she will tell you, as a first step, to make a series of changes in your lifestyle, including:
- Losing weight
- Starting an exercise program appropriate for your age and health status
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Quitting smoking immediately, if you smoke
If lifestyle changes are not enough, then medicines can be used to treat and control the risk factors that are present (hypertension, high triglycerides, high cholesterol or high blood sugar). There is a possibility that your doctor may also suggest that you take aspirin. This is not for pain. Aspirin decreases platelet aggregation within the blood vessels that is involved in the formation of blood clots associated with cardiovascular disease (a tendency that increases with metabolic syndrome). But don’t take anything without the advice of your doctor.
Do any of these factors ring a bell? If so, go see your doctor right away. Then you’ll know your exact weight; blood pressure; and triglyceride, HDL and blood sugar levels. That’s the first step, the simplest and most definitive. Then all you need is the willpower to make the necessary changes in your lifestyle that will help you improve your health and wellbeing every single day. Keep in mind that metabolic syndrome is a combination of factors that often cause no symptoms until they cause complications. The time to address it is now. Don’t wait ‘til tomorrow!