The prevalence of metabolic syndrome among US adults is staggering.
Research shows that more than a third of US adults met the criteria for metabolic syndrome between 2011 to 2016. Since the prevalence of metabolic syndrome significantly increases with age, that number is likely even worse by now.
Metabolic syndrome can have rippling effects on your health, body, and mental health. It can be difficult to decipher all the information and scientific research and walk away with actionable advice. So we wanted to break it down for you. If you're looking for metabolic syndrome facts (and what you can do to navigate or prevent it), you've come to the right place.
Metabolic Syndrome Facts and What You Need to Know
Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These symptoms include:
If you have one of these conditions it doesn't necessarily mean you have metabolic syndrome, but it can be an indicator that you’re at greater risk. You may have difficulties with weight loss, fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, or other health challenges.
Many metabolic syndrome-related illnesses have no clear indications or symptoms. This makes it difficult to diagnose.
Research also implies that those with metabolic syndrome are at a higher risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 than their peers. Metabolic syndrome is linked to a 32% increased risk of ICU admission, with a 45% higher risk of needing invasive ventilation.
Ultimately, the more underlying factors you have, the higher your risk for diabetes, heart disease, hospitalization, and stroke. Let's dive into what you need to know about metabolic syndrome.
1. Chronic Inflammation May be a Sign of Metabolic Syndrome
One big indicator of metabolic syndrome is chronic inflammation, which can be caused by a variety of lifestyle and environmental factors.
Inflammation is a mechanism in your body's natural defense against infection, disease, and injury. The inflammatory reaction causes your body to produce white blood cells, immune cells, and cytokines, which aid in the battle against infection.
Inflammation can take two forms: acute, high-grade inflammation and chronic, low-grade inflammation. Acute inflammation occurs in response to an injury, cut or acute infection. It typically lasts for a few days or weeks after the damage/infection/irritation is treated or gone, and it mostly involves cells of the innate immune system. Redness, discomfort, heat, and swelling are all classic indicators of acute (short-term) inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is not a healing process but rather a constant danger signal in the system that is not getting turned off. Chronic inflammation can potentially lead to serious health issues like diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and cancer.
Local immune cells, such as macrophages and regulatory T-cells, release anti-inflammatory chemicals that help to resolve inflammation and restore balance. However, without proper activation of these anti-inflammatory chemicals, and hormone signals make inflammation worse, which can result in a perpetually “ON” immune network response.
What Is Metabolic Inflammation?
Metabolic inflammation differs from acute inflammation in that it is a low-grade, chronic inflammation. This persistent inflammation can potentially lead to the weakening of other systems, and the risk of developing illnesses like insulin resistance increases.
Insulin resistance is a pathological condition that develops when insulin signaling is disrupted, prompting your body to make more insulin to meet demands and maintain balanced glucose levels in the cells. Cells become resistant to the insulin and over time it takes more and more insulin for the cells to allow insulin to enter.
The pancreas is an organ in the digestive system that helps regulate blood sugar. When the pancreas can no longer support normal insulin production, your insulin resistance weakens and hyperglycemia occurs as a result. Low-grade inflammation is one pathway that can lead to insulin resistance.
Researchers have linked continuous inflammatory and immunological responses to significant changes in tissue metabolism.
A few examples of the alterations made to your tissue metabolism may be:
In small amounts, these may not seem so bad, but when your body has to deal with them consistently, it's going to struggle.
2. Diagnosing Metabolic Syndrome May Not Be Straightforward
Because metabolic syndrome is not a disease in and of itself, you'll need to look at the symptoms to understand whether this is your issue. While it can be difficult to diagnose, there are enough underlying indicators to give doctors and researchers a solid foundation from which to work.
On their own, each of the symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome could be harmful, but when linked together, there is an increased risk of dangerous complications. That being said, there are underlying causes for each symptom respectively, so the term "metabolic syndrome," acts as an umbrella.
When the predominant deposits of body fat are around the belly and upper body, medical experts refer to this as central obesity. Your risk increases as your waist circumference grows. The risk of central obesity may vary depending on gender and ethnicity.
If your waist is 37 inches or more (for men) or 31 inches or more (for women), you should aim to reduce your weight. If you’re of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Chinese, or Central American descent, you may be at a higher risk.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension can develop when a person's blood pressure is higher than 140/90mmHg. This is especially true in the absence of other risk factors.
High blood pressure is linked to heredity traits, lifestyle factors like diet and stress, or other illnesses like kidney or cardiovascular disease, and it raises your chances of heart disease, stroke, and severe renal damage.
Although everyone's blood pressure is different, there is a baseline. A healthy blood pressure range is less than 120/80 mmHg (or lower if other disorders are present).
Cholesterol and Triglycerides
Cholesterol is a type of lipid or sterol produced by cells, especially in the liver. The conventional approach to cholesterol testing is missing the key metric. Testing today measures total cholesterol but fails to look at particle size. A person with low cholesterol can have high particle numbers and a person with high cholesterol can have low particle numbers. Cholesterol is essential for many cellular functions.
Dr. Daniel Pampa describes cholesterol like this:
“If a particle is carrying a lot of cholesterol, that person will normally test as having high cholesterol, whereas someone would test as having low cholesterol if the particles were carrying a small amount. Think of an analogy where your body is a highway. The particles are represented by cars, and the cholesterol by the passengers in the car. In a traffic jam, the number of people in the cars is irrelevant; what will cause a traffic jam is the number of cars on the road. This is why it is the particle number, and not the amount of cholesterol, that matters.
The other important factor is the size of the particles. Larger particles do not pass into the arterial wall, but smaller particles will penetrate the wall and cause oxidation and inflammation. This causes a buildup of plaque, which is what leads to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. If we can determine the specific problem, we can administer the proper treatments, and this test can save your life.”
According to Dr. William Davis, wheat/grain elimination will reduce triglycerides dramatically. Here’s an in depth explanation of cholesterol from the famed Wheat Belly cardiologist. There is a link between hyperlipidemia and metabolic syndrome but the risk is better correlated to particle size than it is to total cholesterol. NMR testing will test for particle size and is a better measure for understanding your risk. The Wheat Belly protocol is a great approach to improving all of the metrics associated with metabolic syndrome, including cholesterol particle size.
Triglycerides are waxy fats that provide energy to your body. They are the most common type of fat in your body. Your body produces triglycerides and gets them from the food you eat as well as from your liver. Because the liver is also responsible for making these, excessive alcohol use might lead to an increase in triglycerides. Consumption of wheat and grains drives up triglycerides. A low-carb, grain-free diet will have a dramatic impact on these numbers.
You can keep triglyceride levels in a healthy range by making dietary and lifestyle adjustments. We'll touch on these later.
Impaired Glucose Tolerance
Understanding insulin resistance is important when it comes to metabolic syndrome. If you have insulin resistance syndrome, your cells are less able to absorb glucose and the body releases more insulin to try and solve this problem. This results in higher amounts of both glucose and insulin in your blood.
Here is a great video from Dr. Jason Fung clearly explaining insulin resistance and how it develops:
3. Underlying Metabolic Syndrome Conditions Could Be Linked
The factors involved in metabolic syndromes are intricately interwoven, making the chain of events that lead up to a diagnosis difficult to decipher. The main, diagnostic components, according to research, are reduced HDL-cholesterol, raised triglycerides, blood pressure, and fasting plasma glucose.
Addressing lifestyle factors such as diet and physical exercise can help you lower your blood pressure, improve your triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and improve your body's insulin sensitivity. Though metabolic syndrome and difficulty with losing weight are linked due to metabolic inflexibility. Dr. William Davis, author of Super Gut and Wheat Belly, was an early pioneer in understanding the impact of lifestyle and grain based diets in particular on metabolic syndrome. In more recent years more doctors have expanded this understanding and begun to recommend dietary and lifestyle changes.
Looking at the underlying causes of metabolic syndrome and making lifestyle changes could aid in the prevention of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and other health challenges.
4. Metabolic Syndrome Affects Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance occurs when your cells, particularly in the muscles, liver and brain, stop responding to the hormone insulin, leading to increased insulin product concurrent with increased glucose circulating in the blood.
Normally, your digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose, which is subsequently absorbed into your bloodstream through your intestines. Your pancreas secretes insulin into your bloodstream as your blood glucose level rises as a signal to push glucose into the cells from the blood.
Insulin allows glucose from your blood to enter your muscle and other cells. The glucose is 'burned' inside a cell, together with oxygen, to make energy.
When you become insulin resistant your cells are slower to respond to the signal to allow glucose inside. As glucose rises in the blood this causes the pancreas to produce and release more insulin to signal the cells in order to maintain normal blood glucose levels. Over time, the system becomes exhausted.
5. Metabolic Syndrome Is Not a Disease
As mentioned earlier, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms - it is not inherently a disease. Unavoidable factors, such as family history and ethnicity, and environmental factors like poor air quality, can increase the likelihood of risk.
Other elements, however, can be influenced by lifestyle choices. You can make better choices when it comes to diet and physical activity, in order to lower the risk for metabolic syndrome or reverse symptoms.
Is Metabolic Syndrome an Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease is a group of diseases in which the immune system attacks your body’s own cells. There are many aspects and triggers for autoimmune disease. Most people who havetype B insulin resistance have an underlying autoimmune disorder. Metabolic syndrome is impacted by autoimmune function, but is a symptom rather than an autoimmune condition itself. Many of the triggers of autoimmune disease are dietary and microbial. Thus the interface in the gut where these antigens are created can have serious implications for both autoimmune and metabolic syndrome.
Research from 2012 from the University of Washington provides some details on the connection between B cells and autoimmune, including autoantibodies to the insulin receptor.
Our company, The BioCollective, continues to do data mining in our microbiome data set in the area of molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry is defined as the genetic (peptide) sequence similarities between foreign (food and microbial) and self-peptides which result in the cross-activation of auto-reactive T or B-cells by pathogen related peptides. Research in the field of molecular mimicry continues to expand at a rapid pace.
6. The Complications from Metabolic Syndrome Are Dangerous
Metabolic syndrome comes with some serious potential complications.When the underlying factors are not addressed, it could lead to life-threatening issues such as:
By far the most common are type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Understanding Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, and many conventional approaches to treatment are missing the root cause: addressing insulin resistance. In order to limit the need for insulin, the glycemic load needs to be reduced. And the most effective way to do so is by embracing a low carb diet or the keto diet, and/or intermittent fasting.
Dr. Jason Fung and his book, The Diabetes Code: Prevent and Reverse Type 2 Diabetes Naturally provide a lot of useful info on type 2 diabetes and why conventional methods don’t work.
He offers four primary principles for reversing: 1) avoid fructose, 2) avoid refined carbohydrates while increasing natural fats,3) eat only unprocessed foods, and 4) Intermittent fasting.
Another major complication of metabolic syndrome is cardiovascular disease. Vascular disease and insulin resistance are closely intertwined. Blood vessels are lined with a thin membrane called the endothelium. Endothelial cells release signaling molecules that control vascular relaxation and contraction. The endothelial cell response to glucose plays an important role in our health. Glucose-induced endothelial dysfunction has been studied for some time. Four pathways of dysfunction have been identified which all have a common mechanism in mitochondrial superoxide (SOD) overproduction. Increased production in the mitochondria is the result of cellular stress. Excess glucose increases the potential for cellular stress. Of course, we know how we feel when we experience physical signs of stress - shortness of breath and constriction of the chest. Over time this excess stress on the cells begins to impact the integrity of the endothelial cells and thus our vascular tone.
7. Prevention Is Possible
Getting regular physical activity, quitting smoking, stopping the consumption of processed foods, sugar and refined carbohydrates, lowering stress, eliminating alcohol, and maintaining a healthy body weight can all help prevent the symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
Certain people are at greater risk of complications from metabolic syndrome than others.
Who’s at Greater Risk
There are some people who are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. The greatest risks are associated with ethnicity.
In the United States, Latino people seem to be at the greatest risk for developing metabolic syndrome.
Reducing Your Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
There are ways to combat or minimize your risk of developing metabolic syndrome and its associated health challenges. Here are a few simple ideas:
Let’s dive into what’s associated with nutrition and inflammation and how eating the right foods can help combat metabolic syndrome.
Nutrition Facts and Inflammation
Our food today does not contain the same level of nutrient density that it did 100 years ago because our monoculture, extractive farming practices have depleted our soils of the trace minerals necessary for our health. While including more organic veggies in your diet will certainly help, it’s important to understand nutrient density and the importance of minerals in our diets. Over the past several decades the academic focus of nutrition has been on macronutrients - carbohydrates, fats and proteins, as a percentage of the daily diet, rather than on the importance of trace minerals and micronutrients.
When the body is under nourished it is unable to mount a proper defense from the immune system and chronic inflammation can result. Dr. Lonsdale of the Cleveland Clinic found many of his patients suffered from something called High Calorie Malnutrition. The Western diet with the highly processed and refined grains and sugars has resulted in high calories but those calories are devote the trace nutrients we need to form healthy bodies and immune systems.
Eliminating all processed foods and beginning to cook your own food, organic and pasture raised as much as possible is the first step in the direction of reducing your risk of metabolic disease and chronic inflammation.
Your gut bacteria are also essential to your ability to breakdown food into the essential building blocks of a healthy body. Most B Vitamins are made in the gut by bacteria. You can read more about the importance of the B Vitamins to your overall health in this blog.
Research suggests intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet can also be helpful for restoring metabolic flexibility and healthy insulin response levels. Both can aid in weight loss by training your body to burn fat rather than store it. If you are interested in learning more about ketogenic lifestyle and intermittent fasting, I recommend joining Ben Azadi’s Keto Kamp. Several times a year he does a free week-long seminar on the basics of healthy keto and how to implement this lifestyle change.
Treating Metabolic Syndrome
A heart-healthy lifestyle is the most important treatment for metabolic syndrome, which includes factors previously mentioned such as eating a wide range of healthy foods and regular physical activity..
How to Reduce Metabolic Inflammation
Other few more things you can do to reduce inflammation are:
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Martha Carlin, is a “Citizen Scientist”, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective , a microbiome company expanding the reach of science and BiotiQuest, the first of it’s kind probiotic line. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human disease. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.
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