Metabolic Syndrome: A Death Threat for Women

It’s a fact that carrying extra weight is detrimental to health. However, did you know that where you hold those unwanted pounds has a significant impact on your heart? Science has discovered that fat stored in the midsection contributes to poor health, including an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. 

Is metabolic syndrome a disease?

To fully grasp metabolic syndrome, it’s essential to understand the difference between a syndrome and a disease. A disease is a medical condition with specific signs and symptoms and is typically associated with a distinct cause. For example, strep throat would be considered a disease caused by the streptococcus bacteria that results in a reddened and painful throat.

On the other hand, a syndrome is a collection of symptoms that, when combined, can damage the body. Often, it’s challenging to identify one specific cause of a syndrome. For example, irritable bowel syndrome causes digestive upset and pain, but without visible damage to the bowel. While doctors can identify things that might irritate the bowel, the actual cause of the syndrome is unclear. Syndromes can often lead to or produce diseases. 

Metabolic syndrome, therefore, is not a disease in and of itself but rather a cluster of symptoms that significantly raise your risk of other conditions. 

Where did metabolic syndrome originate?

The origins of metabolic syndrome likely go back a century or more, as numerous scientists noticed the relationship between symptoms. However, metabolic syndrome was first coined in 1977 by German physician Herman Haller, who used the term to describe the relationship between diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, gout, and fatty liver disease. Haller noticed that the combined symptoms increased the risk of developing atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries. 

A decade later, American endocrinologist Gerald Reaven proposed that insulin resistance was the underlying factor contributing to many problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, naming his theory Syndrome X

In 1998, the World Health Organization defined the first criteria of metabolic syndrome (MetS). Since then, other health organizations, such as the National Cholesterol Education Program and the International Diabetes Federation, refined the criteria widely accepted today. 

What is metabolic syndrome? 

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors that increase the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Individuals with one or two risk factors are at increased risk of heart disease. However, when three or more are present, a person is said to have metabolic syndrome. These risk factors include:

  • Abdominal obesity – Individuals with a large waistline (more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women).
  • High blood pressure – Those with resting blood pressure over 130/85 mm Hg (or individuals taking blood pressure-reducing medication).
  • Uncontrolled blood sugar – Individuals with fasting blood glucose levels higher than 100 mg/dL (or those on medication to lower blood sugar).
  • High triglyceride levels – Those with high cholesterol in the blood over 150 mg/dL (or individuals on medication to lower triglyceride levels).
  • Low HDL cholesterol levels – Individuals with low HDL levels below 50 md/dL for women and 40 md/dL for men (or those taking medication for cholesterol). 

Body shape and metabolic syndrome

Apples and pears are typically associated with health, but not when referring to body shape. Weight carried around the midsection, also called visceral fat, wraps around the organs of our body.

More common in men, individuals shaped like an apple carry most of their weight around the midsection. Larger waist sizes are associated with poor health outcomes, so those shaped like an apple are at the highest risk for metabolic syndrome. Any additional pounds carried in the midsection are unhealthy. Conversely, pear-shaped individuals, who carry weight in the hips, thighs, and buttocks, are at lower risk. 

So, where should you measure when trying to determine your waist size? First, you will want to find the top of your hip bone, called the iliac crest. Then, you will want to feel for your lowest rib. Using a tape measure, you will measure around your waist, halfway between the iliac crest and the bottom of the rib cage. Ensure that the tape measure is snug against your body but not tight. The tape measure will sit right above the belly button for most people, but not for all. 

Ideally, women will find their waist sizes below 35 inches, and men will find theirs below 40 inches. Readings above these numbers result in one point on the risk scale factor for metabolic syndrome. 

How common is metabolic syndrome?

It doesn’t take a medical degree to look at the American population and see that many individuals are unhealthy. Waist sizes are large and continue to rise each year. More than one-third of adults have metabolic syndrome. While adults over the age of 60 were typically at higher risk in the past, studies find that the syndrome is impacting more and more young adults. 

Metabolic syndrome and the heart

Individuals with metabolic syndrome are at a much higher risk of heart disease and stroke. For example, studies have found that women with metabolic syndrome have three times the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke compared to those who do not have the syndrome. 

Not surprisingly, men face a similar risk. A JAMA study found that men with metabolic syndrome were at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death, even if they had never been diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease. 

Can metabolic syndrome be cured?

Metabolic syndrome is not a disease, so to say that it can be cured would be a misnomer. However, it can be reversed! Metabolic syndrome responds incredibly well to dietary changes and lifestyle adjustments. With just a few alterations, you can change your health significantly. 

How to reverse and prevent metabolic syndrome

Eliminate unhealthy foods

Sugar, processed foods, and gluten contribute to metabolic disease and have no place in a healthy diet. When excess sugar circulates in the body, the pancreas must release insulin to push that sugar into the cells. Over time, the pancreas becomes tired, and cells become less responsive, leading to insulin resistance. Eliminating these “never” foods will help ensure that your weight stays in check and that inflammation remains low. 

Add heart-healthy, nutrient-dense food to your diet

The nutrients that you put in your body are as vital as the foods that you avoid. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, grass-fed beef, nuts, and seeds, dramatically reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. Adding vegetables and limited seasonal fruit will also give your body the right vitamins to ward off metabolic syndrome. 

Move your body

The first step in reversing metabolic syndrome is losing the apple shape by shedding those unwanted abdominal pounds. Don’t be discouraged if you have a lot of extra weight. Even losing a few pounds can make a huge difference when it comes to metabolic syndrome, making it easier for your body to recognize insulin. 

Minor changes to your daily routine can make a huge difference. Make it a goal to go for a brisk daily walk. This will assist in weight loss, lower blood pressure, and regulate cholesterol levels. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, purchase a standing desk, and park your car far away from a store. All of these small changes add up quickly. 

Lower your stress levels 

Significant evidence demonstrates the link between stress and insulin resistance. Individuals with a higher level of psychological stress are at increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome. This is because stress produces higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones meant to keep you safe during an emergency. 

These hormones serve a purpose, but they make it difficult for the body to absorb glucose when elevated. Mounting research illustrates that excessive stress adds to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. 

Next steps

Think of metabolic syndrome as a warning light on your car.  The car is still working but may soon fail without maintenance. Metabolic syndrome is your body’s “check engine” light. It’s a gift provided to you so that you may make health changes before the problem becomes irreversible. For continued support and information, book a free 20-minute coaching call with one of the expert health coaches at Natural Heart Doctor.

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 


Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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