You probably know if you are carrying some extra pounds. Weight is something that you can see and feel, even if you never step on a scale. But your weight is only one measure of your overall health.
There are several measurements that can give you and your doctor a better picture of your health. If you have at least three out of the following five health problems, you have a condition called metabolic syndrome.
Obesity, especially if you carry your weight around your waist. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. It’s especially harmful if you carry your weight around your middle.
High blood sugar. Having a high level of sugar in your blood is a sign that your cells are not letting the hormone insulin use and store glucose – a type of sugar – for energy. This condition is called insulin resistance. It can lead to diabetes.
High blood pressure. People with elevated blood pressure might get headaches, chest pain or pressure, or be short of breath. But high blood pressure often does not cause any symptoms.
High triglycerides. Triglycerides are molecules of fat and protein (lipoproteins) produced by your liver and stored in your fat cells for energy. If you routinely consume too many calories, then you will have excess triglycerides circulating in your bloodstream. This can also be caused by genetics. Over time, this can damage your arteries and your pancreas.
Abnormal cholesterol levels. LDL and HDL cholesterols are also fats that circulate in the blood. The body has several uses for cholesterol, but too much LDL and too little HDL is bad for you.
Why does metabolic syndrome matter? If you have metabolic syndrome, you are at increased risk for a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease and stroke, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, among others.
We talked to Jessica Hwang, M.D., about metabolic syndrome and what it means for your overall health.
Does metabolic syndrome have symptoms?
Metabolic syndrome itself does not have symptoms, but the conditions that contribute to it may. For example, symptoms of chronic high blood sugar include constant thirst and frequent urination. This is because your body is trying to rid itself of the excess sugar. High blood pressure can cause headaches, chest pain or fatigue.
You might have symptoms related to the underlying conditions, but this is not always the case. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you suspect you have any of these metabolic conditions.
How can you tell if you have metabolic syndrome?
Your blood pressure and BMI are easy to measure on your own. But keep in mind, you can still have metabolic syndrome even if these two measures are in the normal range.
If you are concerned about your metabolic health, ask your doctor to test your cholesterol levels, triglycerides and fasting blood sugar.
"These tests are usually part of a regular blood panel, but don't assume that. Ask your doctor to test your fasting glucose and lipid tests," says Hwang.
Can you prevent metabolic syndrome?
There are factors out of your control that can contribute to metabolic syndrome, including genetic factors and some prescription drugs. But there are steps you can take to improve your metabolic health.
Maintain a healthy weight. If your BMI is in the overweight or obese range, losing just 5% of your body weight can lower your blood pressure, improve your fasting blood sugar levels and improve your blood lipid levels.
Eat a plant-based diet. Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Fill the remaining one-third with lean animal protein or plant-based protein. Limit red meat and avoid processed meat.
Stay active. Move more. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. You can do this in increments as short as 10 minutes at a time. Do muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week.
Don’t smoke or use tobacco. If you do smoke, quit by using a program that includes a combination of medications, nicotine replacement like patches or gum, and counseling. Vaping has not been proven as a safe alternative to smoking or as a smoking cessation tool.
What is the link between metabolic syndrome and cancer?
Metabolic syndrome can put a person at high risk for several cancers and diseases that can lead to cancer. In addition, there is some research that suggests that cancer patients with metabolic syndrome have more complications during treatment, increased risk that their cancer will spread and lower chance of survival. More research is needed.