Just when we think we are aware of all the diseases out there that should concern us, out pops a new one. The good news in this case—well, sort of—is that the condition, metabolic syndrome, has actually been around for quite some time, although known by a different name. In fact, it was discovered a few decades back but referred to then as simply Syndrome X. Surprisingly, though, something that is so mysterious affects so many of us—nearly 47 million Americans. And according to the American Heart Association (AHA), many of them don’t even realize they have it to begin with. That’s a pretty huge number, amounting to one out of every six people. The risk, alas, increases with age.
Like any good detective, to solve the mystery, we must gather our facts. Metabolic syndrome is not a disease in itself. Rather, it refers to a collection of conditions or risk factors that, if left untreated, can lead to far more serious consequences by doubling your risk of heart disease and increasing by fivefold the likelihood of your developing diabetes.
Yes, there are many other risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. But the ones that make up the metabolic syndrome specifically include:
- High blood pressure, which puts excessive strain on the cardiovascular system, causing damage to the heart and blood vessels
- Abdominal obesity
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels (high triglycerides and low HDL)
- High blood sugar
Metabolic syndrome is also associated with insulin resistance, which means the body does not respond efficiently to insulin and increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Of course, it’s been amply proven that it’s not good to have even one of these components. However, if you have three or more, it sets the stage for the perfect storm for Metabolic Syndrome. But getting a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome is no reason to panic. Just think of it as a wake-up call. In other words, it’s time to get serious about improving your health.
“Even if you do have metabolic syndrome, a few simple changes to your habits can still make a meaningful difference in preventing a serious illness,” says Hester Hommel, a Specialist Pharmacist in the Express Scripts Diabetes Therapeutic Resource Center.
While strongly recommending that this, as with all major lifestyle changes, be preceded, by a thorough check-up from your physician, Hommel suggests a self-care action plan, based on easy-to-accomplish steps that can help almost everyone treat metabolic syndrome—or avoid getting it in the future.
Specialized Action Numbers
To best manage this condition, here are the benchmark measurements to aim for:
- Your waist measurement should be less than 40 inches for a man and less than 35 inches for a woman.
- Blood pressure should be below 135 for your systolic number (when your heart is beating) and 85 for your diastolic number (when your heart is between beats).
- Your fasting blood sugar (measured if you haven’t eaten anything for at least eight hours) should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
- The good cholesterol number (HDL) should be higher than 40 while your Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL.
Specialized Action Advice
Hommel shares the following guidelines from evidenced-based research can help you form the foundation of your personalized self-care action plan:
- If you are not at your ideal body weight, work to reduce it by at least 5% to 10%. A variety of diets have shown to be beneficial, including Mediterranean-style regimens, dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) style plans, plant-based plans (vegan or vegetarian), low-fat diets and lower-carbohydrate plans. Keep blood pressure below 135/85. Reduce sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day.
- Achieving the target blood pressure may require a consultation with a physician to consider hypertension-reducing medication therapy. But it is, in any case, recommended to increase your activity level to reach 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week (50% to 70% of maximum heart rate), subject of course to any physical limitations you may have.
- Try to get at least seven hours of quality sleep daily.
- Control blood sugar by eating small, well-balanced meals and healthy snacks and monitoring carbohydrate intake. This may also require medication.
- Minimize unhealthy fat content of meals and snacks. Keep saturated and Trans fats to less than 10% of the diet, and increase amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eat healthier overall! Food choices should include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Try to eat fish twice a week while avoiding butter, lard and shortening as much as possible.
- Take cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes medications as prescribed. Do not miss any doses. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any question about your medication.
- Keep doctor’s appointments. Make sure to have routine checkups and lab work and ask the healthcare provider to explain the results.
Self-Care Action Plans
Hommel contends that creating an easy, personalized self-care plan that fits your lifestyle is the first step toward healthier outcomes. “And once these goals have been achieved, you should create a new self-care plan that builds upon past success and keeps them on track to achieving their goals. Start with a written action plan — and begin each sentence with positive phrases such as ‘I can’ or ‘I will.’”
For example, “I WILL…”
1) Reduce salt and sodium intake.
2) Get active.
3) Replace one unhealthy food with a healthier option each day.
4) Take medication as prescribed.
5) Get an annual physical, and review the lab results with my physician.
The promising news is that metabolic syndrome can be controlled, largely with changes to your lifestyle. That means reducing high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat.
And the even better news is that in doing so you will make yourself healthier, fitter, and better looking, not to mention giving yourself the best possible chance to live a longer and happier life!