Metabolic Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Metabolic Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Metabolic syndrome, also known as ‘syndrome X’, is a combination of risk factors, rather than a disease in itself, which puts a person at risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases. The term ‘metabolic syndrome’ was defined only 20 years ago, although an association between certain metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease has been known since the 1940s. Today, metabolic syndrome is estimated to affect 1 in 4 adults in the UK, and the incidence increases with age.

What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is a defined as a co-occurrence of at least 3 of the following medical conditions: abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and an inability to control blood sugar levels. People who are slim can also have metabolic syndrome, suggesting that obesity is not necessarily a cause of metabolic syndrome.

Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome

The symptoms of metabolic syndrome are all very common and are often linked with each other, including:

  • Abdominal obesity, i.e. a waist circumference higher than 37 inches (in men) and 31.5 inches (in women).
  • High levels of HDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides (fatty acids) in the blood.
  • Hypertension, aka high blood pressure that is consistently 140/90mmHg or higher.
  • An inability to control blood sugar levels, or insulin resistance.
  • A tendency towards inflammation in the body.

You can have these symptoms without having metabolic syndrome. If you are concerned, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss it, and get some advice on lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Causes of Metabolic Syndrome

As with many health conditions, there is often a combination of possible causes relating to genetic predispositions and lifestyle. Some of the main causes include:

  • A sedentary, inactive lifestyle with little to no physical activity.
  • An unhealthy diet with too many fats and sugars, and not enough vegetables, fruit, oily fish, lean meats and whole grains.
  • Smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol. Both can lead to atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels) and high cholesterol.
  • Having an inherited genetic tendency towards insulin resistance – if members of your close family have it, your risk is slightly increased.
  • Stress. Having prolonged, chronic stress levels can increase cortisol levels in the body, which then causes raised glucose and insulin levels, and high blood pressure.
  • Ageing. People older than 50 are more likely to be affected by metabolic syndrome – up to 44% of people over 50 in the USA have metabolic syndrome.

Potential Complications

Metabolic syndrome is defined as a cluster of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, so the complications are clear – heart disease and diabetes are some of the most common and dangerous modern diseases, killing almost 160,000 people in the UK alone in 2011. Even without heart disease, the symptoms of metabolic syndrome – obesity, hypertension and inflammation can exacerbate many other health problems and can have a serious negative impact on someone’s quality of life.

There are other risks to health too, such as fatty liver disease, kidney problems, sleep apnoea, polycystic ovary syndrome in women, impotence in men, and an increased risk of developing dementia in later life. It is possible to prevent or reverse metabolic syndrome, with positive lifestyle changes such as following a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, quitting smoking, and cutting down on alcohol. Consult your doctor for more advice if you feel that making these lifestyle changes could be of benefit to you.

Metabolic Syndrome Treatment

The term ‘metabolic syndrome’, also known as ‘syndrome X’ refers not to a disease, but a cluster of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, such as obesity, high waist circumference, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels and insulin resistance. If these risk factors are present, it can increase your risk of developing potentially fatal cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes.

If you are worried, consult your doctor for a check up, and you can work together to formulate a treatment plan. Often, lifestyle changes are recommended to lower cholesterol, improve insulin resistance and lose excess weight, although where appropriate, your doctor may prescribe medication such as statins for cholesterol.

Lifestyle Tips for Metabolic Syndrome

  • Lose excess weight: As obesity and a high waist circumference (over 40 inches for men and over 35 inches for women) are major factors in metabolic syndrome, losing weight through healthy eating and an active lifestyle is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Exercise: Regular activity can lower blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, and can help you to get rid of any extra pounds. Start small by taking gentle exercise such as walking, and gradually increase your level of activity until you are doing 150 minutes a week of exercise. Other good forms of exercise include jogging, swimming, cycling, playing sports, dancing, or yoga. Find something that you enjoy doing, so it won’t feel like a chore.
  • Sleep: Most adults need 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and many people get much less than that. As well as causing lack of concentration, fatigue and irritability the next day, a chronic lack of sleep can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain due to appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin being out of balance, and it can increase the risk of heart disease due to high levels of stress hormone in the blood, which can damage the delicate lining of the veins and arteries.
  • Quit smoking: As well as being bad for your general health, smoking cigarettes can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis. If you need help with quitting, your doctor can advise you on an effective smoking cessation plan.
  • Avoid excess alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to weight gain, as alcoholic drinks are high in sugar and calories, increased insulin resistance due to the high sugar content, and can cause heart problems such as increased blood clotting, irregular heartbeat and cardiomyopathy. If you do drink, stick to no more than 4 units per day for men, and 3 units a day for women. 1 unit is equivalent to one small glass of wine, one 25ml measure of spirits, or half a pint of beer.

Diet Tips for Metabolic Syndrome

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: You should have at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day for a healthy diet, and if possible, 7-9 portions are ideal. This will help you to get plenty of vitamins and essential nutrients into your diet and help you lose excess weight.
  • Stick to lean sources of protein: Eating skinless chicken, turkey, or fish helps to avoid any unnecessary fats in your diet. Avoid processed meats like bacon or sausages as they can be very high in salt and fat, and can have many other unhealthy added ingredients. Beans are a great source of protein which is very low in fat and also high in fibre, which will be good for your digestive system and can also help to lower cholesterol.
  • Choose good fats: Olive oil, sunflower oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds and avocados contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help to increase levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol in the body. Bad fats are trans fats, or saturated fats, and are found in fatty meats, lard, butter and margarine, fried foods, baked goods, and high-fat dairy products like cheese and ice cream. These can lead to raised LDL cholesterol levels, weight gain, and atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries).
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates and eat more whole grains: Refined carbohydrates such as those found in white bread and pasta, baked goods, sweets and cakes, are broken down very quickly by the body and this can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a crash. This can lead to increased insulin levels, cravings for sweet foods, weight gain, and fatigue. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grain bread and pasta, sweet potatoes, oats, legumes, brown rice can help to maintain a healthy, slow release of energy throughout the day. These types of carbohydrates are also higher in nutrients and fibre.
  • Avoid too much salt: Too much salt in food can lead to dehydration and water retention in the short term, and long-term overconsumption of salt can raise blood pressure, meaning trouble down the road for your cardiovascular health. It is recommended that you have no more than 6g of salt a day, which is about one teaspoon. Check food labels to find out how much salt they contain, and use herbs and spices when cooking instead of salt to add flavour to food.