Metabolic Syndrome: Know the Symptoms and How to Prevent It

Syndrome comes with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes


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Going up a pants size may hurt more than just a woman’s pride. When an increase in waist circumference is accompanied by at least two other metabolic factors, such as high blood pressure and insulin resistance, you may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. 

Women diagnosed with this condition are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. So recognizing the symptoms and taking steps to prevent or slow metabolic syndrome can have a positive impact on your overall health.

 

Symptoms and Risk Factors

Metabolic syndrome is a diagnosis of a cluster of risk factors driven by insulin resistance, says Dr. Sue Kirkman, M.D., professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill. Women are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome when they have three of five risk factors:

• High blood glucose

• Low levels of HDL (or good cholesterol)

• High levels of triglycerides (or bad cholesterol)

• A waist circumference of greater than 35 inches

• High blood pressure

It’s important to note, however, Kirkman says, that health care providers also look at a woman’s overall health. “If a woman has only two of these risk factors, for instance, but is also a smoker, we would still need to address those risk factors,” she says. 

Metabolic syndrome is a fairly common diagnosis. As Americans have gotten heavier, the number of patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome has increased. According to data from the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one in every three adult Americans has metabolic syndrome.

A diagnosis is more common in women after menopause, when they lose the protective effects of estrogen. “They tend to gain weight around the stomach rather than the thighs,” Kirkman says. “Women with a family history of Type 2 diabetes are also at a higher risk for metabolic syndrome.”

According to the American College of Cardiology, having metabolic syndrome triples a woman’s risk of heart attack or stroke. Women with metabolic syndrome are also five times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

 

Metabolic Syndrome and Fertility

Women with metabolic syndrome can also have difficulty conceiving, says Dr. Kelly Acharya, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham. Acharya says she often sees fertility patients with metabolic syndrome.

“There’s a lot of overlap between metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS,” Acharya says. “Insulin resistance seems to be the common underlying factor in both.”

Acharya says insulin resistance affects ovulation as well as a patient’s overall health. Women with PCOS or metabolic syndrome are more likely to skip ovulation, which can make getting pregnant difficult.

“For treatment, we would start with lifestyle modifications, like exercise and weight loss, as well as smoking cessation, if necessary,” Acharya says. “Often, patients also need help with ovulation induction through oral medication.”

Acharya says lifestyle modifications like weight loss have the biggest impact on a woman’s health for three reasons. First, losing weight improves glucose control, which may jump-start ovulation without the help of medication. Second, when women lose weight they respond better to any needed fertility treatments. Third, a healthier weight will also mean a healthier pregnancy and reduced risk for gestational diabetes and hypertensive disorders.

“I would recommend that patients with metabolic syndrome get the disease under control as much as possible,” Acharya says. “But their chance of conceiving is high regardless, especially with collaboration with high-risk pregnancy specialists.”

Acharya also advises women with metabolic syndrome to see their OB-GYN for preconception counseling. Providers can review their medical history and refer them to a fertility specialist if they have trouble conceiving. 

 

Making Lifestyle Changes Stick

Losing weight, getting more exercise, quitting smoking, and eating better sound like simple recommendations. Putting them into practice, however, can be a tremendous challenge for many women. Kirkman says, though that women don’t need to be thin to see change.

“Just losing 5-10% of your body weight can have a huge impact on metabolic syndrome and its risk factors,” she says. To improve health, Kirkman recommends reducing caloric intake and stress, and increasing exercise. 

When it comes to dieting, studies show there’s no one best solution for everyone. 

“The best diet for people is the one they can stick to,” Kirkman says. “Whether that’s vegan or low carb or Mediterranean.”

Whichever route you take, Kirkman says, keep in mind what she considers to be universal dieting tips, such as consuming fewer calories than you burn and not drinking empty calories. Beverages like soda and sweet tea provide little nutritional value or satiation while sabotaging dieting efforts.

Exercise is another way you can prevent or treat metabolic syndrome. Kirkman advises prioritizing exercise by scheduling it on you calendar. You don’t have to be an athlete to see results. Making small, incremental lifestyle changes can help you reduce and prevent metabolic syndrome, increase your fertility, and live a longer, healthier life.

“The Diabetes Prevention Program recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, such as walking,” Kirkman says. “Any kind of moderate, aerobic exercise is helpful.”

 

Christa Hogan is a local writer and parent of three.


Kick Smoking in 5 Steps

Dr. Sue Kirkman, M.D., professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, says smoking encourages midsection weight gain — a leading factor in metabolic syndrome. The American Heart Association says smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the U.S. and offers these five steps for kicking the habit.

1. Pick a Quit Day.

2. Choose a method: Cold turkey, or reduction in frequency/quantity.

3. Talk to your doctor about getting help.

4. Plan how you’ll avoid smoking when the urge to do so arises.

5. When your Quit Day arrives, stick with your goal. 

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