When it comes to your health, caring for your ticker should be a top priority. After all, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is responsible for a whopping one in three deaths in the United States. And it turns out there’s a scary-sounding condition—metabolic syndrome—that could increase your risk for serious issues in the heart department.
Want to show that vital beating organ the love it deserves? Brush up on your knowledge of metabolic syndrome, and learn how to curb your risk of developing it.
What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
“Metabolic syndrome is a combination of conditions that directly increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke,” says Sindhu Koshy, M.D., a cardiologist with Ascension/Crittenton Hospital in Rochester, Michigan.
Yep, metabolic syndrome actually refers to five not-so-great health factors—increased abdominal weight, high triglycerides, low HDL (a.k.a. “good” cholesterol), high blood pressure, and high blood sugar—that, together, can cause major health problems, says Koshy.
You’re more likely to develop these individual conditions if you’re obese and inactive, says Matthew Budoff, M.D., professor of medicine at the division of cardiology at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Koshy notes that your risk increases as you age, too.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Determining whether or not you have metabolic syndrome can be done via blood testing and other evaluations at your doc’s office. The thing is, none of the conditions that contribute to metabolic syndrome have outward symptoms, says Budoff, so you may not be aware that something’s wrong.
For starters, find out if you have a family history of these issues. “If your family members had diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or cardiovascular disease, you are at higher risk,” says Koshy.
To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you need to exhibit three or more of the following measurements, per the AHA:
Abdominal obesity: a waist circumference of more than 40 inches in men or 35 inches in women
High triglycerides: 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or higher
Low HDL cholesterol: Less than 40 mg/DL in men or less than 50 mg/DL in women
High blood pressure: Top number (systolic blood pressure) of 130 mm Hg or higher, or bottom number (diastolic blood pressure) of 85 mm Hg or higher
High blood sugar: 100 mg/DL or higher
“[Having] just one condition doesn’t mean you have metabolic syndrome,” says Koshy, “but if you have one, you should make sure you are evaluated for the others to learn how to prevent them.”
And while you may not feel sick if you have metabolic syndrome, Koshy says oftentimes your doc will request lab work and measurements to test for these risk factors, so don’t skip out on booking that yearly appointment. If you do get diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you’re definitely not alone.
According to the AHA, about 23 percent of adults in the U.S. have it. Yikes. Once you’re diagnosed, you’ll likely be asked to see your M.D. every three months to check in, but in most cases you can wait longer than that if you’re managing the disease, says Budoff.
What Can You Do to Treat Metabolic Syndrome—and Reduce Your Risk?
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome or your numbers indicate you’re creeping into danger territory, there are a few steps you can take to get your health back on track.
For starters, physical activity is key, as it can help with all five risk factors, says Budoff. He advises patients to get a minimum of 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day three times a week, and to work their way up to more.
Watching your weight is also super-important, says Koshy, who suggests cutting back on sugar, fats, and red meat, as well as upping your intake of fiber, green veggies, and fruits. The USDA recommends eating the following per day: 25 grams of fiber for women and 38 grams of fiber for men; two and a half cups of vegetables for women and three cups of vegetables for men; and one and a half cups of fruit for women and two cups of fruit for men.
Plus, according to Mayo Clinic, foods high in fiber (like fruits and greens) aid in digestion and can help control your blood sugar. Koshy recommends working with a dietitian to help get your healthy eating in order.
Omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fatty fish and some plants, like flax seeds, may also be helpful. Check this out: One review published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that higher levels of dietary omega-3 fatty acids helped to lower blood triglyceride levels, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
However, Budoff says that traditional meds are often necessary if lifestyle changes aren’t working. These might include diuretics, beta-blockers, or ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, or statins for high cholesterol, according to the AHA.
Meanwhile, alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, which lower blood sugar levels, are often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. These will help prevent further complications, like a heart attack or stroke, says Koshy.