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Metabolic syndrome: your body’s check engine light

Woman with check engine light graphic over her chest
Article

read time: 4 min

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Health & Wellness

There it goes again—your car’s check engine light. Time to take your vehicle to the mechanic to get it checked out. Just like your car, your body may send you warning signals. One of them is metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome affects more than 1 in 3 adults in the US, and the likelihood of having it increases with age.1 This syndrome can impact your heart, set the stage for diabetes, and affect other organs. We'll discuss how testing for inflammation and other markers can help spot health concerns linked to metabolic syndrome as well as ways to lower your risks and even reverse its effects.

 

Unpacking the 5 risk factors for metabolic syndrome

Like a check engine light, metabolic syndrome doesn't point to a single issue but rather a cluster of factors. Together, this group of conditions can increase your risk of serious health issues like heart, liver, and kidney diseases as well as type 2 diabetes. When screening for metabolic syndrome, doctors consider 5 risk factors. You may have metabolic syndrome if your doctor confirms you have 3 or more of the following conditions:

Obesity: While it’s tough to find time to exercise and eat healthy, having excess belly fat with an apple-shaped body can be a significant risk factor for metabolic syndrome. Extra belly fat interferes with insulin, a hormone that regulates your blood sugar. This is called insulin resistance and it can upset your cholesterol levels and increase blood pressure. Also, fat cells trigger your immune system to cause inflammation. When inflammation becomes chronic—because your immune system is turned way up all the time—sticky cells called plaque start to build up in your blood vessels. These clumps of plaque can come loose and potentially cause blockages that may result in heart attacks or stroke.2

High blood pressure: Has your doctor mentioned your blood pressure has steadily risen over your last few check-ups? Long-term high blood pressure can harm your heart and blood vessels. Similar to obesity, it can lead to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, which can cause heart attack or stroke.2

Elevated blood sugar levels: If you’ve been more thirsty than usual and not sure why, it could be one of many symptoms of out-of-control glucose levels. High blood sugar can damage your body's organs—especially your blood vessels—which can lead to heart attack, stroke, and problems with the kidneys, eyes, nerves, and more.2,3 So, be sure to have regular blood tests as recommended by your doctor.  

High blood triglycerides: When your doctor raises concerns about your cholesterol, triglycerides are part of the package. High triglyceride levels can raise your LDL cholesterol, aka the “bad” cholesterol. LDLs are the bad guys behind plaque formation in your arteries, which can also lead to heart disease over time.2

Low HDL cholesterol: In the case of HDL, you don’t want to go low. HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol that helps remove the “bad” LDL cholesterol from your blood. HDL cholesterol transports the bad LDL cholesterol to the liver, where it’s flushed out. High levels of HDL—“good” cholesterol—lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.4

Having at least 3 of the factors for metabolic syndrome also puts you at higher risk of developing other serious conditions—heart and blood vessel diseases, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease.

Black woman with concerned expression pressing her palms to her head
QUICK FACT
Just as a car’s check engine light indicates a problem, metabolic syndrome signals issues within your body.

Diagnosing and testing metabolic syndrome

How can you tell if you have metabolic syndrome? Have a discussion with your medical team. Your doctor can review your medical and family history, order tests, monitor your blood pressure and weight, and recommend lifestyle changes or treatments. Your doctor may request the following types of tests to see if you have metabolic syndrome or any associated conditions:

Blood tests, like a comprehensive metabolic panel, measure the levels of blood sugar, liver enzymes, creatinine, and more, which may indicate health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, or liver and kidney disease

High-sensitivity C-reactive protein test to detect low but persistent levels of inflammation in the blood that may be associated with developing cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) disease

Asymmetric dimethylarginine/symmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA/SDMA) blood serum test to help identify heart and blood vessel diseases, pre-diabetes, or diabetes or to assess kidney function12

 

Regular maintenance and tune-ups to reduce your risk

Like your car’s engine, your body needs regular care, maintenance, and monitoring. You can reduce your risk or even reverse the effects of metabolic syndrome by ensuring your body is fueled by a healthy lifestyle and regular check-ins to keep your body running like a fine-tuned engine.

When your body sends you warning signals of metabolic syndrome, you can navigate the challenges head-on. Put yourself in the driver’s seat and take control of your health. You have the tools to help minimize and reverse your risk of diabetes and heart, liver, and kidney diseases. By adjusting your lifestyle and sticking to your treatment plan, you can help prevent and overcome the effects of metabolic syndrome.

 

References

  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is metabolic syndrome? Published May 18, 2022. Accessed December 8, 2023. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/metabolic-syndrome
  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Metabolic syndrome causes and risk factors. Published May 18, 2022. Accessed December 8, 2023. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/metabolic-syndrome/causes
  3. Mouri MI, Badireddy M. Hyperglycemia. StatPearls. Published online April 24, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430900/
  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is blood cholesterol? Published March 24, 2022. Accessed December 8, 2023. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/blood-cholesterol
  5. Shmerling RH. Metabolic syndrome is on the rise: what it is and why it matters. Harvard Health. Published October 2, 2020. Accessed December 9, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/metabolic-syndrome-is-on-the-rise-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters-2020071720621
  6. Cleveland Heart Lab. Quest Diagnostics. ADMA/SDMA. Published November 2018. Accessed December 7, 2023. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/CHL-D070-AUG2018-ADMA-SDMA-Practitioner-One-Pager.pdf
Page Published: April 15, 2024

The Quest Editorial Team


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