X Marks the Spot: Breaking Down Metabolic Syndrome

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Do we really need another reason to eat right and exercise? Apparently so, as the battle against fat isn’t getting easier and a disease called syndrome X is getting more attention than ever.

Metabolic syndrome, also called syndrome X, sounds ominous, but being diagnosed with it is worse. Although the name sounds mysterious, it’s a very common group of conditions that combine to increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems such as diabetes.

Generally, metabolic syndrome develops from lack of exercise and being overweight, but five specific risk factors increase the likelihood of getting it. According to the National Institute of Health, a person has metabolic syndrome if they have three or more of these traits or are taking medication to control them; see the sidebar for details.

Having just one risk factor is cause for concern but coupling that with other risk factors indicates a serious health issue. For example, high blood pressure alone is a health problem, but when a patient has high blood pressure, is obese and also has high glucose levels, there is a greater possibility that she will have a heart attack, diabetes or stroke. Patients who are aware that they have at least one risk factor for metabolic syndrome should consult their doctor to test for other components of the syndrome.

The United States has been inundated with cases of metabolic syndrome over the last several years, and experts say it’s because we are a nation overrun with processed foods and big portions but lacking in regular exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits. Approximately 50 million people in America are affected by metabolic syndrome; approximately 5 percent of those have normal body weight, 22 percent are overweight and approximately 60 percent of these are considered obese.
Metabolic syndrome should be treated as a serious health condition because, emphatically, it is. People who have it carry a higher risk of diseases related to fatty buildup in the artery walls. Coronary heart disease, which can lead to heart attack, is an example. The syndrome also causes stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

Some of the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome have no symptoms, although a large waist circumference is a telltale sign. If your blood sugar is high, you may have signs of diabetes, including fatigue, blurred vision, increased thirst and urination.

All is not lost if you suffer from metabolic syndrome. The good news is that you can reduce your chances of getting it or control it by simply changing your lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, losing excess weight, putting a nix on smoking and seeing your physician on a regular basis will all be helpful in preventing this condition.

Fighting metabolic syndrome starts within. Eating a diet low in unhealthy fats and focusing on fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains will supply much needed health benefits including weight loss. Many experts suggest a Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. Both emphasize “good” fats, such as the monounsaturated fat in olive oil, with a combination of carbohydrates and proteins. For the diet best for you, ask your doctor or a nutritionist.

Regular exercise is also a must for keeping risk factors at bay. Most experts recommend at least 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. That is about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Examples of vigorous exercise include fast walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, taking an intense exercise class and playing tennis. The most recent research shows that vigorous activity reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome by about one-third, but any exercise will be beneficial.

If lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise aren’t enough, your doctor may suggest medications to help control your blood pressure, cholesterol levels or blood glucose. By combining forces, doctors and patients can treat each risk factor individually while closely monitoring how the medications are working.

Talking is also important. Talk with your doctor if you have heart disease or have had a stroke. Talk with your family about making changes now to avoid this syndrome down the road and talk with other experts such as the American Heart Association. Call 1-800-242-8721 or visit americanheart.org for more information. ■

Sources: webmd.com, mayoclinic.org and medicinenet.com.