What Are the Links Between Cardiovascular Disease and Metabolic Syndrome?
Why is it important to understand risk factors connecting metabolic syndrome to heart disease? Heart disease is the single leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a person dies from cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds. Put another way, each year cardiovascular disease is the cause of one out of every four deaths. In recent years, researchers have come to understand that metabolic syndrome can be a precursor to cardiovascular disease. Managing the underlying contributors to metabolic syndrome may help some individuals reduce their heightened risk of cardiovascular disease metabolic syndrome is manageable through lifestyle changes.
Metabolic Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease
Metabolic syndrome is a series or, rather, cluster of symptoms that include excess body fat around the waist, high cholesterol or triglyceride levels, high blood sugar, insulin resistance and elevated blood pressure. The presence of just one of these factors doesn’t constitute a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, but the more of these factors that are present, the greater a person’s risk for developing heart disease as well as type 2 diabetes, according to Mayo Clinic. In the United States, about one third of adults have metabolic syndrome.
What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?
The main causes of metabolic syndrome are the consumption of processed foods, consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and a sedentary or inactive lifestyle. A person with metabolic syndrome is insulin resistant, meaning there is a poor response to insulin in the cells. Nearly half of Americans have at least one of the key risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or smoking). But even though the risk of developing a serious health condition such as cardiovascular disease is substantial, individuals can manage their metabolic risk factors with lifestyle changes.
What Are the Cardiovascular Consequences of Metabolic Disease?
In short, the symptoms of metabolic disease like increased blood pressure and high cholesterol levels heighten the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease refers to numerous problems that affect the heart and blood vessels. These problems start with chronic inflammation that results in a buildup of plaque in the arteries, and leads to a narrowing of the blood vessels. A number of serious health outcomes can occur as the arteries narrow, including heart attack, stroke, and irregular heart rhythms.
How Is Inflammation Associated with Metabolic Syndrome?
Inflammation occurs in the body when the immune system sends out an inflammatory response to an injury, virus, or toxic chemical. You’ve seen–and felt this–when you’ve gotten a cut or scrape. The area might become inflamed, feel sore, or itch as the inflammatory response triggers the healing process to occur. This type of inflammation is known as acute inflammation; this is not the type of inflammation we’re concerned with when we think about metabolic syndrome.
The inflammation associated with disease onset in metabolic syndrome is chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is different and occurs when the body keeps sending out those inflammatory cells and never enters the healing cycle of repair. The body remains in a perpetual state of alert. This continued state of alertness can take a toll on the body’s tissues and organs. If the inflammation continues unchecked, it can trigger autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis when immune cells actually attack healthy tissues, causing severe pain and damage to joints. It can also cause metabolic syndrome, which as we know, can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Chronic inflammation is associated with the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis in addition to cardiovascular disease.
Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome, and Cardiovascular Disease
Insulin resistance happens when your cells, particularly those in your muscles, brain and liver, stop responding properly to insulin. When this occurs, the cells can’t use glucose from your blood very well to supply energy. To address this problem, the pancreas pumps out more insulin and starts a vicious cycle that, in turn, leads to less responsiveness and a buildup of both insulin and blood sugar over time. Rising blood sugar and insulin resistance drive the development of type 2 diabetes, a serious health condition in its own right but also one that is linked to cardiovascular disease. In a recent meta analysis of studies of Type 2 diabetes found that more than 32% also had cardiovascular disease.
Insulin resistance is also associated with several additional factors that are correlated to metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.
How Does High Blood Sugar Contribute to Heart Disease?
High levels of blood sugar can, over time, damage the blood vessels of the heart and render them more vulnerable to the development of fatty (artery clogging) deposits. Sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver, and when digested by the body, this can trigger inflammation. Different kinds of sugar may contribute more or less to inflammation.
High blood sugar levels can also trigger diabetes onset, and the leading cause of death among people who have type 2 diabetes is, in fact, a cardiovascular event such as stroke or heart attack. For that reason, high blood sugar levels are quite dangerous, requiring effective management to reduce the risk of heart disease.
How Do I Reverse Metabolic Syndrome?
Can you reverse metabolic syndrome? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes. There are many things that individuals can do to manage metabolic syndrome successfully and lots of tools and resources for helping you along your journey to health from books to blogs and podcasts with specific coaching on how to change your lifestyle and support groups to give you the encouragement you need.
Reduce High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is one of the conditions associated with metabolic syndrome. Elevated blood pressure increases blood flow and puts pressure on your blood vessels. Normal blood pressure is considered to be in the range of 120/80 for most adults. Blood pressure numbers below this threshold are considered healthy. How elevated your blood pressure is will affect how you choose to manage it. Sometimes doctors will advise patients to increase their physical activity levels (i.e. exercise more) and change their diet first before suggesting medication, as blood pressure medicines have other side effects and impacts on long-term health.
In most cases, lifestyle changes such as reducing sodium intake, eliminating processed foods from the diet, and losing weight can have a significant impact. Did you know that eating beets will lower your blood pressure. I like making a fermented drink called Beet Kvass. It’s easy:
Use 1-2 organic red beets cut into cubes, ¼ cup whey (liquid skimmed from plain yogurt), 1 T.mineral salt like Redmond’s and distilled or RO Water in a quart jar. Seal and shake the jar and leave on the counter for two days until it starts to fizz. Then store in the refrigerator and take a shot each morning.
Other factors that may contribute to high blood pressure are medications like steroids, hypoxia induced by sleep apnea or other hypoxia-inducing factors such as environmental air quality.
Keep Your Blood Sugar in Check
Keeping your blood sugar under control will help reduce the risk of insulin resistance, which, as mentioned, can pave the way to type 2 diabetes. There are several possible ways to reduce blood sugar levels naturally:
- Getting regular exercise
- Intermittent fasting
- Reducing carbohydrate intake (eating less, or better yet, NO processed bread, pasta, rice, and other simple carbs)
- Increasing intake of fiber (eating more legumes and whole grains)
- Getting better quality sleep
- Eating probiotic-rich foods such as plain yogurt, preferably homemade and sauerkraut/kimchi
- Considering the right probiotic supplement to reduce appetite and support satiety signaling
Reduce LDL (Bad) Cholesterol
A high cholesterol level is a precursor of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Insulin resistance actually impacts cholesterol levels and raises triglycerides. Dietary changes are the best way to address high cholesterol. While medications can reduce cholesterol levels, there are numerous side effects to cholesterol lowering drugs. There are many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce blood cholesterol levels naturally. These include: reducing intake of vegetable / seed oils and trans fats, eating foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish, exercising regularly, giving up smoking, drinking less alcohol, and losing weight.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Obesity is associated with increased risk for many diseases, like diabetes and heart disease and is a sign that you already have metabolic syndrome. To learn more about the connection between metabolic health and weight loss, read our in-depth blog post here. Intermittent fasting is one of the most effective ways to lose weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and reverse metabolic syndrome.
Increase Fitness Level
A sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Not everyone is comfortable visiting a gym. Exercise comes in many forms. You can increase your fitness level by increasing physical activity in simple ways. Walking, jogging, and swimming are excellent forms of exercise, but gardening, bike riding, and even dancing can increase your fitness level too. If you live in a walkable area, consider walking to the store instead of driving. Taking the stairs whenever possible and parking farther from the store entrance are simple ways to increase your activity.
Eat Right for Your Heart
Consuming a heart-healthy diet means not eating trans fats and vegetable / seed oil fats and more leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and properly prepared legumes. You can find many online resources, books and articles to help you develop a heart-healthy diet. One of the leading experts in heart-healthy eating is Cardiologist Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, Undoctored, and the recently released Super Gut. Dr. Davis's recent book connects more of the dots between the microbes in your gut and all chronic disease, and he provides a four-week program for getting your gut back on track and restoring your health.
By managing metabolic syndrome symptoms, you can take ownership of your health and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and other correlated challenges. Lifestyle changes don’t have to be major overhauls: start building momentum by taking one simple step in the right direction. This might look like adjusting your diet and removing sugar first, or adding 30 minutes of movement such as walking or stretching into your day. What action can you start with today?
The more you shift your habits and start feeling better, the easier it becomes to continue your wellness journey and live a long, healthy life.
Don't wait to initiate the measures outlined here to tackle your symptoms of metabolic syndrome. The sooner you take steps to improve your diet and increase your activity levels the sooner you can make progress in reducing your symptoms and, ideally, eliminating them before they can cause more serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
If you have any questions about improving your metabolic health or making lifestyle changes to navigate metabolic syndrome, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
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. 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 health, including Parkinson’s. 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.