What Is Metabolic Syndrome, and Do I Have It?

by Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD Health Professional

Most people know about traditional vital signs: heart rate, blood pressure, weight. They may even recognize a few more at a doctor’s visit, like respiratory rate or body mass index. A relatively new measure collects these and other health stats for an even clearer picture of heart health. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that, like a vital sign, tell a doctor and patient that cardiac health is at risk.

What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is related to metabolism, which is simply the way our bodies use and store energy from foods. Also known as Syndrome X, metabolic syndrome was developed as a concept of a group of metabolic issues that can help to identify people at risk of heart attacks or diabetes. In the 1980s, the connections among weight, heart health, and insulin response were just being explored. Since then, research studies and professional groups—including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the International Diabetes Federation — have refined the measures and their meanings into today’s definition of metabolic syndrome.

A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome involves five basic measures:

  • waist circumference of 40 inches or more in men, 35 inches or more in women

  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL in men, less than 50 mg/dL in women

  • high triglycerides (a part of cholesterol) of 150 mg/dL or more

  • high blood pressure (either number) or 130/85 mmHg or more

  • Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or more

Needing medicine to reach normal cholesterol, blood pressure, or glucose levels also qualifies as a measure of metabolic syndrome.

Today, these measures are used more often during doctor visits to identify risks earlier and prevent---instead of treat---serious heart- and sugar-related diseases. When metabolic syndrome is diagnosed, the [risk of cardiac disease doubles], and diabetes risk increases five-fold.

Do I have metabolic syndrome?

To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you must have any three of the five measures. The key measure, according to the standard AHA-NHLBI definition, is the apple body shape: the large waist measure that reflects visceral fat. You do not have to be overweight or obese to have extra fat stored around the waist.

Metabolic syndrome has familiar risk factors; some relate to lifestyle choices, but many others are unavoidable.

  • Older age, as metabolism changes (for example, during perimenopause)

  • Lack of physical activity, particularly exercise that affects the heart rate

  • Genes, especially factors the decide what body type you have and where your extra calories are stored as fat

  • Ethnicity: Hispanic, Native American, and African American populations are at higher risk because of hereditary traits and lifestyle factors

  • High-fat diet that provides too few cholesterol-lowering fibers and whole grains

  • Medications, such as antipsychotic drugs, which change the body’s metabolism

  • Conditions that change hormones, like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

How can I stop or reverse metabolic syndrome?

If you are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, changing habits and sometimes taking medicines can stop and even reverse insulin resistance/pre-diabetes or cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis. Without treatment, metabolic syndrome symptoms lead not only to heart and diabetic conditions but also to problems that seem unrelated: sleep apnea, fatty liver, and even asthma.

Like other cardiac conditions, metabolic syndrome improves with a low-salt, good-fat, nonsmoking lifestyle. What may be more surprising for heart patients is the connection to refined carbohydrates and added sugars. Insulin resistance can lead to increased triglycerides, another metabolic syndrome marker, which in turn raises the risk of coronary heart disease, too.

One approach to changing your habits with a broader focus than just salt is to change fiber choices.

Exercise, metabolism, and heart function

Typically, heart patients are told that moderate exercise is key to reversing damage and feeling better. This is true for people with, or at risk for, metabolic syndrome, too: physical activity is crucial to good health, with a small twist.

Studies from 2008 through today support interval training, specifically two or three weekly sets that increase heart rate, instead of daily lower-intensity workouts. In fact, despite burning the same calories, people with metabolic syndrome reversed symptoms more often with short high-intensity workouts than with longer moderate workouts.

Learn more about HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or ask your doctor about reliable HIIT programs to try safely.

A healthy mindset, for a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome or any indicator of heart disease, is important, too. Realize that finding a problem early gives you the chance to turn around your risk of serious problems, like stroke or nerve damage, much sooner. Knowing your metabolic syndrome measures can be a great way to jumpstart healthy habits before any heart disease takes hold.

Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD
Meet Our Writer
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Nicole Van Hoey is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at bloglovin.com/@foodallergypantry.