What is ‘metabolic syndrome’ and why is it important that I know?

crutchfieldsquareMetabolic syndrome is not one single medical condition but rather a series of medical conditions that include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood sugar levels
  • increased body fat, especially around the waist

Having one of these conditions does not mean that you have metabolic syndrome, but you should ask your doctor if it is worth checking for the other components of the syndrome at your next visit. Having metabolic syndrome increases your risk for developing heart disease, stroke, and/or diabetes.

If you do have metabolic syndrome, it is very important to treat it aggressively through lifestyle changes and/or medications to prevent long-term and serious health problems.


Most of the conditions in metabolic syndrome such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure don’t have symptoms. Obviously, having excess fat around the waist is a visible sign. Patients with diabetes can experience increased urination, increased thirst and blurry vision.

Risk factors

The five major risk factors for metabolic syndrome are:

  1. obesity
  2. inactivity
  3. race (African Americans and Hispanics have a higher incidence)
  4. age (metabolic syndrome rates increase significantly over age 55)
  5. positive family history

One of the components of metabolic syndrome is insulin resistance or diabetes. When you digest food, your body converts a large portion into sugar (glucose). Glucose is used as an energy source and is often deposited in the liver and muscles.

Glucose is escorted to these areas by insulin, similar to an usher at a movie theatre. In insulin resistance, there is difficulty in responding to insulin and its ability to put glucose into muscles and the liver.

High sugar levels in the blood can be very destructive to the different organs including the cardiovascular system, blood vessels in the eyes, and blood vessels in the kidneys and brain. All of these can be damaged by diabetes.

There are different criteria for diagnosing metabolic syndrome. Talk to your doctor to see which criteria they use. Most criteria for metabolic syndrome will evaluate:

  • waist size
  • lipid/triglyceride levels
  • low HDL cholesterol levels
  • high blood pressure
  • elevated fasting blood sugar levels

Aggressive lifestyle changes to combat metabolic syndrome include:

  • a healthy diet/ good nutrition
  • smoking cessation
  • exercise
  • weight loss

If these healthy lifestyle measures are not effective, your doctor may prescribe medications that regulate:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood sugar levels
  • obesity

Surgical intervention may also be considered for uncontrollable morbid obesity.

Remember, it is very important to aggressively treat metabolic syndrome to prevent the associated complications of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Make sure you schedule regular medical appointments with your doctor. Your doctor will recommend how often these examinations should be scheduled.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.