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Why You Should Know About Metabolic Syndrome

According to studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association, metabolic syndrome affects up to 25% of the American population.


This startling statistic means that one in five people are experiencing significant health risks due to this condition. What is this insidious disease called metabolic syndrome, and why is it deserved of so much attention?

What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Once known in the medical community as “syndrome X” or “insulin resistance syndrome”, metabolic syndrome has the dubious distinction of becoming a recognized diagnosis in its own right. The syndrome poses such a significant health risk because it is really a cluster of conditions that work together to seriously degrade health and invite mortality. These conditions, occurring together, increase your risk of heat disease, stroke and diabetes and can lead to a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome:

  • Increased blood pressure: A blood pressure reading of higher than 120 / 80.
  • Elevated insulin levels: Insulin helps to regulate the amount of sugar in your body, and insulin resistance can elevate risk of disease.
  • Excess body fat around the waist: Obesity in general puts you at risk for disease, but having an “apple shape” – more fat around the middle – means elevated risk.
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels: that is, low HDL levels (your good cholesterol) and high LDLs (your bad).

Don’t these conditions alone have adverse health effects? You bet. High blood pressure increases your risk of serious disease, as does elevated insulin levels and high cholesterol. But the combination of these diseases can make your risk of disease skyrocket, leading to the very serious diagnosis of metabolic syndrome.

If you already know you have at least one of the conditions described above, it may be that you have others without being aware of it. Visiting a doctor to see if you should be checked for the others is a good idea. The diagnosis of metabolic syndrome isn’t great news, but knowing you have the disease can get your doctor on the case, put your level of risk in perspective, and make your need to make aggressive changes in your lifestyle a priority.

What’s the Connection to Metabolism?

You’ve heard people who are thin and seem to eat a lot described as having a “naturally high metabolism”. Most of us know metabolism has to do with our rate of burning calories, but our understanding stops there. What is “metabolism” really?

It’s true that our metabolism is affected by what we eat and our physical activity. But metabolism is the term used to refer to several processes that concern converting food and other substances into energy and other metabolic byproducts. It’s an important function because how our body uses food to maintain itself, repair damage, heal from injury, and aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients depends on the process of metabolism.

One of these metabolic processes includes how our body responds to insulin. Insulin controls the amount of sugar in our bloodstream. If we are insulin resistant, glucose cannot enter our cells as easily. Our body then responds by churning out more insulin and increasing the insulin level in our blood, which can lead to diabetes. It also interferes with how our kidneys work, leading to higher blood pressure.

Greater weight, especially around the middle, means a higher risk of insulin resistance, because fat interferes with the body’s ability to use insulin. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are the hallmark risk factors for many diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes. These conditions together create a perfect storm of damage when it comes to our metabolic processes.

Combating Metabolic Syndrome

If you are one of the “one of five” diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, aggressive lifestyle changes will likely be the Rx. While medication is often necessary for those with this diagnosis, changes in diet and exercise can delay or even prevent the development of serious health problems related to metabolic syndrome. If you are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome or you are at risk for this diagnosis because you have one of its component conditions, a three-prong attack is the path to prevention.


Many individuals with metabolic syndrome are treated for elevated blood pressure and insulin resistance with medication. Medication can be the first order of business for patients with hazardous levels; other patients may find that their doctor turns to medication if lifestyle changes are not having the desired effect. Also, doctors might recommend a daily aspirin to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.


Diet is truly at the heart of mitigating the symptoms of this disease. Many professionals recommend the Mediterranean diet for those at risk. This diet is rich in vegetables, whole grains and fish, and is rich in good fats like olive oil. It has become a popular dietary recommendation because unlike other diets, it can be enjoyable, isn’t overly restrictive, and as a result, it can be sustained over the long term – the key to any lifestyle change. And, according to industry sources, recent studies have shown that when compared to a low fat diet, people on the Mediterranean diet have a “greater decrease in body weight, and also had greater improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other markers of heart disease — all of which are important in evaluating and treating metabolic syndrome.”


Exercise completes the prevention triumvirate when it comes to metabolic syndrome. Studies indicate that simply decreasing fat (through liposuction, for instance, or divine intervention) won’t have the beneficial effects of actually moving to lose the weight. In fact, even those who lose no weight through exercise still benefit from it when it comes to this disease. There is a beneficial effect of exercise on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and insulin sensitivity – the perfect combination of benefits for metabolic syndrome.

Antioxidants & Metabolic Syndrome

Recent discoveries attribute potential health benefits to antioxidants such as anthocyanin, anti-inflammatories and other natural compounds found in the deep blue pigment of fruits like our own wild blueberries. Working with wild blueberry fruit compounds known as anthocyanins, Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University, Plants for Human Health Institute led a team of researchers that demonstrated that blueberry phytochemicals helped alleviate hyperglycemia in rodent models, a condition associated with diabetes and metabolic syndrome. You can read the research in the May 2009 issue of Phytomedicine.

Ongoing studies like Dr. Lila’s that are focused on metabolic syndrome can open the door to even better ways to hone in on prevention, and with luck, kick that 25% statistic into the single digits where it belongs.

You can learn more about metabolic syndrome at the American Heart Association. You’ll also find more about the risk factors and complications at the Mayo Clinic.

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