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Metabolic Syndrome
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Related terms: clustered risk factors, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, triglycerides, glucose

Thanks to many studies and thousands of patients, researchers have found certain variables that play an important role in a person's chances of developing heart disease. These variables are called risk factors. In recent years, researchers have found that some of these heart disease risk factors cluster together in certain people. This clustering of risk factors is known as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is also called Reaven syndrome, insulin resistance syndrome, or Metabolic Syndrome X.

People with metabolic syndrome have a clustering of the following risk factors:

  • Central obesity, meaning extra weight in the stomach area
  • Diabetes or trouble digesting a type of sugar called glucose (glucose intolerance)
  • High levels of triglycerides and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or "good cholesterol") in the bloodstream
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

There is still a lot to be learned about metabolic syndrome, but doctors do know that people with metabolic syndrome have an increased risk of heart attack and coronary artery disease.

What causes metabolic syndrome?

Researchers think that metabolic syndrome is a genetic condition, which means that it is passed down through the genes of family members. For the most part, though, doctors do not fully understand why metabolic syndrome happens.

People with insulin-resistant conditions such as diabetes and hyperinsulinemia are more likely to have metabolic syndrome. Diabetes is a condition where the body cannot make or respond properly to the hormone insulin. Hyperinsulinemia is a condition where large amounts of insulin are pumped into the bloodstream.

Normally, your pancreas releases insulin when you eat certain foods. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body's cells accept sugar (glucose), which gives those cells energy. If the cells become resistant to insulin, it will take more insulin to move the glucose into the cells. In turn, your body makes more insulin, which is pumped into your bloodstream.

Too much insulin in your bloodstream increases your risk of heart attack because it

  • Raises your triglyceride levels.
  • Lowers your levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or "good cholesterol").
  • Raises your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad cholesterol").
  • Makes it harder for your body to clear fats from your blood after you eat.
  • Raises your blood pressure.
  • Increases your blood's ability to clot.

As many as 10% to 30% of people in the United States have some form of insulin resistance.

What are the signs of metabolic syndrome?

Patients with metabolic syndrome will not feel any symptoms. But there are signs that might lead doctors to a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome. Doctors will look for a clustering of the following conditions:

  • Central obesity, meaning extra weight in the abdominal (stomach) area.
  • Trouble digesting a type of sugar called glucose (glucose intolerance). Patients with metabolic syndrome usually have hyperinsulinemia or type 2 diabetes.
  • High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad cholesterol") and triglycerides in the bloodstream.
  • Low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or "good cholesterol") in the bloodstream.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).

How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors can check your HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and weight, all of which are warning signs of metabolic syndrome. You may also need blood tests to measure the levels of glucose and insulin in your bloodstream.

How is metabolic syndrome treated?

Metabolic syndrome is treated by treating the other underlying conditions you have. So, if you have diabetes, hyperinsulinemia, high cholesterol levels, or high blood pressure, you should be under the care of a doctor and be receiving the proper treatment. Exercise and weight loss are also helpful for improving insulin sensitivity and for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

In some cases, medicines are given to treat metabolic syndrome, but your doctor will want you to try to make lifestyle changes, including eating a proper diet, avoiding sweets, quitting smoking, and drinking less alcohol.

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Metabolic Syndrome

Updated October 2013
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