Metabolic syndrome is a group of health conditions that tend to occur together and collectively increase your risk of serious diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. This can include high blood sugar, high triglycerides (fats in the blood) and high blood pressure. This also includes a person having a high waist circumference (35 inches for women and 40 inches for men).
You need three or more of these five risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, and the more criteria you meet, the higher your risk of developing serious diseases.
We believe that insulin resistance is one of the major underlying factors in metabolic syndrome. Insulin helps cells absorb the glucose they need for energy. With insulin resistance, the cells responsible for metabolizing glucose don’t respond well to insulin, so higher insulin is produced as the body’s “workaround.”
Some people are genetically predisposed to this condition, but lifestyle factors mediate one’s genetic predisposition. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome also become more common with age and are worsened by being overweight. Although you can’t help your genes, you can make the best of a not-so-great situation with healthier lifestyle choices.
Managing Metabolic Syndrome
Since it’s not a disease but a set of findings that indicate an increased risk for certain conditions, the treatment focuses on managing specific conditions. This includes checking blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, assessing for sleep apnea and screening for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Once your doctor identifies the specific conditions, she will treat them individually.
We have some drugs that help treat insulin resistance. The most well studied one is metformin. In one study of people with prediabetes (where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes), taking metformin reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 31 percent, which is an important reduction.
However, the same study showed that exercise and weight loss have even better results. Intensive lifestyle changes with a weight loss of just seven percent (that’s about 14 pounds for someone weighing 200 pounds) resulted in a 58 percent reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Creating a Healthier Lifestyle
So, intensive lifestyle changes are almost twice as effective as medication. The required weight loss isn’t extraordinary, but physical activity – 150 minutes per week, or about 30 minutes five times a week – is key. This change occurred gradually over a three-year period, making this lifestyle strategy sustainable. Remember to always consult with your doctor before embarking on a new exercise program.
Although “making lifestyle changes” sounds like generic advice, it’s actually the best treatment we have for metabolic syndrome.