What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
By Charles A Evans MD, PhD
The term “metabolic” refers to the biochemical processes involved in the body’s normal functioning. Risk factors are traits, conditions, or habits that increase your chance of developing a disease.
In this article, “heart disease” refers to coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque (plak) builds up inside the coronary (heart) arteries.
Metabolic Risk Factors
The six conditions described below are metabolic risk factors. You can have any one of these risk factors by itself, but they tend to occur together. You must have at least three metabolic risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.
- A large waistline. This also is called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.” Excess fat in the stomach area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.
- A high triglyceride level (or you’re on medicine to treat high triglycerides). Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood.
- A low HDL cholesterol level (or you’re on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol). HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk for heart disease.
- High blood pressure (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood pressure). Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
- High Insulin level (>10) or fasting blood sugar (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood sugar). Mildly high blood sugar (>100) may be an early sign of diabetes.
- High Leptin Hormone levels (greater than 10). This hormone is produced in the fat cells of your body and tell your brain when you are full. High Leptin levels suggest leptin resistance and may also imply problems with cortisol and other hormones of metabolism. Very high levels of Leptin are associated with serious disorders in metabolism and obesity.
Your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke increases with the number of metabolic risk factors you have. In general, a person who has metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop diabetes as someone who doesn’t have metabolic syndrome.
Other risk factors, besides those described above, also increase your risk for heart disease. For example, a high LDL cholesterol level and smoking are major risk factors for heart disease, but they aren’t part of metabolic syndrome.
Having even one risk factor raises your risk for heart disease. You should try to control every risk factor you can to reduce your risk.
Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body can’t use its insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar into cells where it’s used for energy. Insulin resistance can lead to high blood sugar levels, and it’s closely linked to overweight and obesity.
Genetics (ethnicity and family history) and older age are other factors that may play a role in causing metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is becoming more common due to a rise in obesity rates among adults. In the future, metabolic syndrome may overtake smoking as the leading risk factor for heart disease.
It is possible to prevent or delay metabolic syndrome, mainly with lifestyle changes. A healthy lifestyle is a lifelong commitment. Successfully controlling metabolic syndrome requires long-term effort and teamwork with your health care providers.