March 1, 2024 – High blood pressure. High triglycerides. An expanding waistline. High fasting blood sugar. Abnormal cholesterol. If you have three or more of these ailments, you may have metabolic syndrome – a common, yet often overlooked condition. Metabolic syndrome, also known as insulin resistance syndrome, raises your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

But now researchers are finding that stress plays a critical role, and managing that stress could help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, as well as treat diseases linked to it.

While managing psychological distress can be complicated at times, there are easy, affordable ways to lower stress levels, along with your risk of metabolic syndrome. 

Why that’s important: New research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health found that stress can lead to increased inflammation, and inflammation raises your risk of metabolic syndrome. Stress can lead to decreases in HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), and increases in obesity levels, insulin resistance, and triglycerides – all of which can damage your inflammatory pathways. Thus, stress is indirectly tied to metabolic syndrome through the harmful effects of inflammation.

If your levels of triglyceride – a type of fat in the blood – are 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or more, you also have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. Other risk factors include a fasting blood sugar above 100 mg/dL and a blood pressure higher than 130/85. 

One of the ways to lower your stress is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT highlights the benefits of mindfulness – the art of being “in the moment,” along with paying close attention to how your body communicates (for example, acknowledging the severe anxiety you often feel during the holidays or major family gatherings). Another ACT technique is the practice of both recognizing and acting on personal values you have identified. Having self as context – meaning “being aware of thoughts, feelings, etc., without being attached to them” – is another ACT practice. 

Along with managing your stress levels, there are other practical ways to monitor, or lower, your risk of metabolic syndrome. These include helpful tracking tools like an inexpensive blood pressure cuff and glucometer (around $20) according to Easton Bryant, PharmD, owner of North Century Pharmacy in Columbia, KY. 

A body composition analyzer can also be extremely helpful to monitor metabolic syndrome risk. While these machines are quite pricey, there are health facilities across the country that will allow you to use the machine for a low cost. A body composition analyzer allows you to take note of the amount of fat you have on your limbs and extremities, as well as your muscle mass.

Building your muscle mass is an often overlooked part of lowering your risk of metabolic syndrome, says Michelle Ponder, MD, an obesity board-certified endocrinologist and diabetes and metabolism specialist for Duke Health in Durham, NC. Experts suggest at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (dancing, taking a brisk walk, biking) or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity (running, swimming laps, climbing stairs). 

“People miss out on trying to make sure that at least two of those activity sessions per week are resistance exercise,” Ponder said. “So, whether it’s body weight or weightlifting, that really plays a large role in preventing the development of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.”

Keeping a journal of what you eat and drink is also a great way to track your daily habits and stay on top of your health goals, Bryant said. 

“If you will just document what you’re doing, then you will have to get real with yourself,” he said. “For example, you eat five cookies a day, every day. This month, you ate 150 cookies. Measuring is really everything, and that is what has driven me [to reach my own health goals].

Nutrition plays a critical role in lowering your risk of metabolic syndrome, largely due to the way a poor diet can contribute to indicators of the disease. For example, waist circumference: A waist size of 35 inches or more for women, or 40 inches or more for men, is one of the major indicators of metabolic syndrome. 

But within as little as 3 or 4 months, you can lose tens of pounds and get your waistline to a healthier size, said Nettie Novelli, a licensed metabolic balance practitioner and founder of Wellionaire Living LLC, a science-based metabolic program that creates custom food plans to help you reach your health and wellness goals.

Novelli has been in the wellness industry for 30 years and maintains a healthy lifestyle of clean eating and regular exercise. Despite this, she began to notice her waistline expanding. A metabolic syndrome diagnosis took her by surprise. Using her health and wellness background, she learned just how a health-conscious person could have developed this condition and what she could do to regain her health. 

Because metabolic syndrome is based on insulin resistance – or too much sugar in your bloodstream – eating the wrong foods for our specific bodies can increase the risk of conditions that lead to metabolic syndrome, she said. 

Novelli offers clients a customized food plan based on their metabolic blood panel (blood sugar levels), as well as their age, gender, medical conditions, and food preferences, among other things. Novelli went from a size 10 (34-inch waist) back to a size 2 (27-inch waist) using this method of tracking. “When you’re getting the insulin and the blood sugar system to work correctly, you start to lose the symptomatology of metabolic syndrome – and that’s the waistline.”

Metabolic syndrome is often not a “hot topic,” as many people focus on the aesthetic side of weight loss and health, like whittling your waistline in time for the summer, Bryant said. 

Diagnosable or not, metabolic syndrome awareness is critical, as the risk for severe outcomes like stroke or heart disease is far greater when you have a cluster of cardiovascular diseases vs. a singular one. But metabolic syndrome and the conditions that go along with it are commonplace across the country, and doctors often simply prescribe medication vs. major diet and lifestyle changes, Bryant said. 

Click here to learn more about metabolic syndrome.