Metabolic Syndrome – What Is It and How Do I Know if I Have It?

A consequence of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome is a potentially serious health issue that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood.

Normally, the body’s digestive system breaks down the food consumed into a usable form (glucose), which is the body’s main source of energy. As glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas is prompted to produce insulin. Insulin helps the cells in the muscles, fat and liver to absorb glucose from the blood so it can be used for fuel immediately or stored for later use when needed. As glucose leaves the bloodstream and enters the cells, the pancreas is triggered to stop producing insulin, and the blood glucose level remains in check.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in the muscles, fat and liver do not respond normally to insulin, and as a result, glucose is prevented from entering the cells. As glucose builds up in the blood, the pancreas responds by producing more insulin. If the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep the blood glucose at a healthy level, the resulting high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can lead to metabolic syndrome.

Who is at risk of developing metabolic syndrome?

Recent studies show that metabolic syndrome affects up to 33% of Americans. While the precise causes are not fully understood, experts believe a combination of unhealthy lifestyle factors—such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and disrupted sleep patterns—can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Other risk factors include:

  • Central obesity (excess body fat carried around the midsection)
  • Skin tags or acanthosis nigricans (darkened skin) on the neck or armpits
  • A personal or family history of diabetes mellitus
  • A personal history of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome or sleep apnea
  • Advanced age

What are the signs of metabolic syndrome?

Usually, metabolic syndrome does not produce noticeable symptoms right away. Instead, its effects occur gradually over time. As glucose accumulates in the blood, diabetes-like symptoms may develop, such as frequent urination, extreme thirst and overwhelming fatigue. Another visible sign of metabolic syndrome is a large waist circumference (greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women).

How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?

According to recent guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), metabolic syndrome is defined as having three or more of the following traits:

  • A large waistline
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (“good” cholesterol)
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated fasting blood glucose

How is metabolic syndrome treated?

The first step toward managing the effects of metabolic syndrome and preventing serious complications is making a lifelong commitment to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes:

Exercising regularly

Regular physical activity can improve insulin sensitivity by helping to move glucose into the muscle cells, where it is used for energy. As a general rule of thumb, many health experts recommend incorporating at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, into every day. To be effective, the physical activity does not have to be completed in a single session. Many people benefit from making small changes throughout the day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking farther away from their destination and walking the extra distance.

Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight

While any amount of weight loss is beneficial, studies show that individuals who lose 7% of their body weight can greatly improve their insulin sensitivity and ward off type 2 diabetes and other serious complications. Weight loss is best achieved through diet and exercise, but medication and/or surgery may be considered in some cases if necessary.

Quitting tobacco

The numerous detrimental health effects of smoking include insulin resistance (as well as cardiovascular disease). Tobacco smoke contains many harmful chemicals, including nicotine, which can interfere with the body’s cellular response to insulin. Some of the beneficial effects of smoking cessation become apparent almost immediately, and as the body continues to heal, its insulin sensitivity will improve.

Eating a healthy diet

When it comes to insulin resistance, there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all diet. Based on the latest research findings in the field of nutrition, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) generally recommends:

  • Eating a diet that is rich in whole, unprocessed foods
  • Avoiding highly processed foods that contain added sugars, salt or artificial trans fats
  • Replacing starchy vegetables and refined grains with non-starchy vegetables
  • Consuming fiber from vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains
  • Minimizing carbohydrates

To be effective and stand the test of time, a healthy eating plan should include foods that are readily available, affordable and enjoyable. And remember, when making positive lifestyle changes, slow and steady wins the race.

Talk With a Family Medicine Specialist

Insulin resistance is a chronic and progressive disease, which means that if left untreated, it will not go away but instead, worsen. A family medicine specialist at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health can help you on your journey toward improving your insulin sensitivity and preventing or managing the complications of metabolic syndrome. Our Watergrass office is conveniently located at 7760 Curley Road in Wesley Chapel, and you can request an appointment online or call 813-751-3700 for assistance.

About Anthony Esposito, DO

Dr. Esposito is a primary care physician and family medicine specialist who takes a special interest in preventive medicine. To encourage his patients to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle, he emphasizes education and offers personalized guidance and support, such as assistance with planning a healthy diet and setting realistic weight-loss goals that are simple, measurable and incremental.


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