Metabolic Syndrome

The term “metabolic” refers to all the biochemical processes that occur in our cells that allow us to eat, breathe, exercise and do our daily activities.

When you have metabolic syndrome, your body is in a state of serious malfunction. These malfunctions can put you at risk for many chronic health conditions.

Metabolic Syndrome or “Syndrome X” as it is often referred to, is a group of risk factors which include:

  • High blood pressure (greater than 130/85)
  • Abdominal fat and obesity
  • Elevated triglyceride levels
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol
  • High blood glucose levels and/or insulin resistance

To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you would have at least three of these risk factors.  When some of these risk factors are combined you have an increased long-term risk of developing diabetes, blood vessel damage, heart disease, strokes, fatty liver disease and an overall increased mortality rate.

The two most important risk factors that may be the cause are:

  • Extra weight around the middle of the body (central obesity). The body may be described as “apple-shaped”.
  • Insulin resistance, in which the body cannot use insulin effectively. Insulin is needed to help control the amount of sugar in the blood stream by helping blood sugar enter cells. If you have insulin resistance, your body doesn’t respond to insulin, and blood sugar cannot get into cells. As a result, the body produces more and more insulin.

Many of the conditions involved in metabolic syndrome produce no signs or symptoms.

How do you develop Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic Syndrome is a disease of diet and lifestyle, it develops over time, but the underlying metabolic factor is elevated insulin levels, which result from a high intake of refined carbohydrates, breads, flour and sugar-based snack foods. These foods trigger a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, and the body responds by raising levels of insulin, the hormone that moves blood sugar into cells.

The more carbohydrates consumed, the more the body pumps out insulin to deal with all the extra blood sugar. Eventually, insulin resistance develops and the body becomes overwhelmed by the volume of insulin and becomes sluggish in response to it. High insulin promotes fat storage, raises blood pressure and worsens blood fat profiles.

Other important considerations include: genetic predisposition, insufficient dietary fibre; low intake of antioxidant nutrients; excessive free radicals and pro-oxidants - increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) - and lack of exercise.

How to prevent Metabolic Syndrome

The good news is that this collection of risk factors responds well to dietary intervention and lifestyle changes, reducing the chances of developing chronic disease.

Maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and diet is the primary treatment for this condition.  An ideal diet would be a low carbohydrate diet that restricts carbohydrates that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.  These include simple carbohydrates which are found in biscuits, muffins, white bread, ice-cream, soft drinks etc. Keep in mind though, that even complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, pasta etc., may be a problem for some people and cause a rapid rise in glucose and insulin.

Losing weight, exercise, and dietary changes can help prevent or reverse metabolic syndrome

If you have ANY of the risk factors it may be a good idea to see your health practitioner to have your blood pressure checked and to get some blood tests done.

One of the problems though, with just testing fasting glucose, is that your pancreas may be secreting high amounts of insulin to bring down the sugar level in the blood (insulin resistance).  So, for some time the fasting glucose level can look good on paper. 

Fasting insulin levels may also not show the true story.  It can be common for fasting insulin to be normal but if you are very sensitive to the effects of carbohydrates – this may send up insulin after consuming and stay high for 2 hours or so after but by the next morning the fasting insulin may be normal.  This scenario would suggest a big problem with sugar regulation, which could be a problem down the track.

It is common for patients to report to me that “my blood sugar is fine” (according to their GP and pathology test).  As you can see there is more to the story!  If you think you have some of the risk factors mentioned above, I would suggest having some more sensitive tests performed to find out whether you are at risk for some chronic health problems down the track.

One of the best pathology tests to test for blood sugar dysregulation is a glucose tolerance test with insulin being tested at the same time.  I would also suggest an HBAIc (measurement of blood sugar over 3 months) lipid profile (HDL, Cho, Tri), liver enzymes and full chemistry panel.