Reversing Metabolic Syndrome and Its Risks

By Amanda Fey, ND

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, significantly increasing risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. As obesity reaches epidemic levels in the US, this dangerous condition, also known as Syndrome X, is affecting a growing number of people. According to the American Heart Association, up to 25 percent of the US adult population is thought to suffer from metabolic syndrome. The good news is, if you have metabolic syndrome or any of the components of metabolic syndrome, you have the opportunity to make therapeutic lifestyle changes and reverse your risk of developing these serious diseases.

Signs and Symptoms

Having metabolic syndrome means you have several disorders related to your metabolism at the same time. Specifically, metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when a person has at least three of the following risk factors:

• Abdominal fat: men over 40 inch waist; women over 35 inches.

• High triglycerides: over150 mg/dL   

• Low HDL cholesterol: men less than 40 mg/dL; women less than 50 mg/dL      

• Elevated blood pressure: equal to or greater than 130/85 mm Hg   

• High fasting glucose levels: equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL

The more of these risk factors you have, the greater the risk to your health. In general, a person with metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop diabetes as someone without metabolic syndrome.

Insulin Resistance and Metabolic Syndrome

The dominant underlying causes for metabolic syndrome appear to be abdominal obesity and insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that helps control the amount of sugar in your bloodstream. Your digestive tract breaks down the food you consume into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. This rise in blood glucose after a meal stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin, which enables glucose to enter cells to be converted into energy. In people with insulin resistance, glucose doesn’t enter the cells effectively and therefore remains in the blood stream. To compensate, the pancreas may secrete more and more insulin. The excess levels of both blood sugar (blood glucose) and insulin contribute to developing high triglyceride levels, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high blood pressure and/or other signs of metabolic syndrome, such as increased waist circumference.Reversing Your Risks

Data from the National Institutes of Health indicate that over $100 billion in healthcare costs annually go to diseases associated with metabolic syndrome.  An article written by the chief medical officers of the American Cancer, Diabetes, and Heart Associations published in the journal Circulation in 2004 stated that the current strategies in approaching these chronic conditions are not effective, and more emphasis needs to be placed on disease prevention and lifestyle changes. In addition, a statement issued by the American Heart Association and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute emphasized that lifestyle interventions should be the initial therapies recommended for treatment of metabolic syndrome. If they are not sufficient, then drug therapies for the individual risk factors may be recommended.

A study by Duke Medical Center found that people with metabolic syndrome who made lifestyle modifications by exercising and losing weight had a 47 percent reduction in insulin overproduction. Weight management is an important aspect of reversing metabolic syndrome. However, fad diets, strenuous exercise regimens, and/or the use of stimulants have been shown clinically and scientifically to eventually fail. The problem with most popular weight loss programs is that they focus on weight loss alone. Little or no emphasis is placed on healthy body composition (fat-to-lean muscle ratio), even though healthy body composition is widely recognized as being more crucial to long-term success than just dropping pounds.

Unhealthy body composition refers to carrying too much fat in comparison to lean (i.e., muscle) tissue. Diet programs that focus only on weight loss can help you look thinner, but they can also lead to muscle loss and retention of excess fat. So even if you do lose weight, an unhealthy body composition will still leave you at risk for a wide range of serious health concerns.

Your bathroom scale alone isn’t a good indicator of body composition. Even if your weight is within normal range, you might still have an unhealthy ratio of fat to muscle. A more accurate and scientific way to estimate body composition is Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA). BIA is a noninvasive technique that analyzes your tissue and fluid compartments by passing an ultra-low-level electrical current through the body. It is more sophisticated than your bathroom scale, but just as painless.

It is crucial to understand that controlling metabolic syndrome cannot be accomplished by simply taking a pill every day. Many national health organizations are recognizing the benefits of therapeutic lifestyle changes and are recommending it as a primary treatment protocol for managing many chronic conditions. Clinically, I find coaching patients to achieve balanced eating habits, stress management, regular physical activity, and optimal sleep patterns, in addition to utilizing condition-specific nutritional supplementation, are the keys to obtaining proper body composition and reducing the metabolic risk factors.

Making lifestyle changes is a multi-layered event that should not be expected to happen overnight. A sedentary lifestyle, poor food choices and an ever-increasing amount of stress in our lives have all contributed to this explosion of chronic health conditions.  If you or anyone you know of has metabolic syndrome or some of the risk factors involved, it is important to begin today to address these conditions. Your well-being matters.

Dr. Amanda Fey is a Naturopathic Doctor and certified First Line Therapy Lifestyle Educator at the Integrative Medicine Center in downtown Ithaca, NY                        ( She can be contacted at 607.275.9697.
Dr. Amanda Fey will teach a class at GreenStar, “First Line Therapy: For Better Health Now and For a Lifetime,” on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 7 pm.  The class is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register, sign up at GreenStar’s Front Desk or call 607.273.9392.



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