Demystifying Metabolic Syndrome

If your doctor diagnoses you with metabolic syndrome, don't panic and think you've come down with some fatal disease. Instead, consider it a warning sign that your long-term health is at risk, and resolve to take action.

While metabolic syndrome puts you at risk for developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a variety of lifestyle changes can help put it behind you.

You'll receive a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, which is actually a constellation of symptoms, if you have three or more risk factors, explains Kim Valenza, RD, CDE, of New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center in New York City. The risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85.
  • High blood sugar equal to or higher than 100.
  • Large waist circumference for men at 40 inches or more and for women at 35 inches or more.
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol under 40 mg for men and under 50 mg for women.
  • High triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg.

Another risk factor that determines whether or not you have metabolic syndrome is whether you take certain medications. "If you take medication for high blood pressure or for hyperglycemia, this also counts as a risk factor," Valenza explains.

Metabolic syndrome is common, says Cecilia Chapman, RD, CDE, of the CDE Help Team. It affects 1 in 5 individuals in the United States, she says, and it gets more common with age. The syndrome is linked to a sedentary lifestyle, and very common in diabetics. "In fact, some 75 percent of people with type 2 diabetes have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome," Chapman says.

Metabolic syndrome can disappear, but only if an individual is motivated to work toward better health.

"The condition is more closely brought on by nurture rather than nature," says Furqan H. Tejani, MD, FACC, director of advanced cardiovascular imaging at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center. High blood pressure, a large waist circumference, and high triglycerides are mainly the result of lifestyle choices, he adds, and if an individual wants to get rid of the syndrome, he really needs to change his eating and exercise habits.

"Although metabolic syndrome is a disease that poses a significant burden on the patient, the resolution of the illness lies in large part with the patient," Tejani says.

What you can do to put metabolic syndrome behind you:

  1. Lose weight. This doesn't mean embarking on a crash diet. Instead, try to lose between seven to ten percent of your current weight.
  2. Get moving. Half an hour of daily moderate intensity exercise, walking, biking, hiking, should be your goal.
  3. Lower your blood pressure whether through exercise or medication.
  4. If you have high cholesterol, ask your doctor if you should be taking medication to lower it.
  5. If you smoke cigarettes, quit.
  6. Find out from your doctor whether taking a low-dose aspirin on a daily basis would be beneficial for you.