If you've never heard of metabolic syndrome, you're probably not alone. It’s a term often used in medical journals and doctor-speak, but it is worth knowing about. A national health report found that 33 percent of adults have the condition, with women more affected than men.

"And more women, especially between the ages of 20 and 39, are now developing metabolic syndrome," says Aruna D. Pradhan, MD, associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In fact, the rate for women is growing, from 35 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2012. The consequences are real: “Not only does metabolic syndrome increase your risk of heart disease by about twofold, it's a much stronger risk factor for diabetes too—anywhere between three to five times higher for those who have metabolic syndrome compared to those who don't.” Here’s how to find out if you have metabolic syndrome, and what to do to lower your risk."

How do I know if I have metabolic syndrome?
Check your numbers. All of the factors that would classify someone as having metabolic syndrome can be monitored at a routine checkup by asking your doctor to order a full blood work-up. Typically, a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome occurs if three or more of the following statements are true:

• Your blood pressure is higher than 130/85 mmHg (or you're already on meds to control it)
• Your waist circumference measures more than 35 inches (40 inches for men)
• Your fasting glucose is 100 mg/dL or more (or you're already on meds to control it)
• Your HDL cholesterol (the good kind) is less than 50 mg/dL (40 mg/dL for men)
• The level of triglycerides (a type of fat found in your blood) is 150 mg/dL or higher (or you're already on meds to control it)

Why is this even a thing?
We don't have to tell you that high blood pressure, too much sugar or fat in your blood or a large waistline can each put you at risk for a slew of health issues, but when you have all those conditions clustered together in one "syndrome" a more holistic story of what's going on with your overall health can be told, plus you can know how at risk you truly are for an adverse health event, such as a heart attack. "Metabolic syndrome is a precursor to a lot of bad outcomes," says Pradhan. "Pulling all these factors together can provide a strong message to a patient about what her body's telling her and the multiple systems being affected."

Why does metabolic syndrome affect more women than men?
Pradhan, who co-authored a study in 2013 on metabolic syndrome's effects on women and men, found that as women enter menopause, weight gain occurs and fat distribution often shifts. As estrogen levels decline, women are more likely to develop dangerous visceral (belly) fat, which increases the waistline and, as a result, spikes the risk of metabolic syndrome. Unfortunately, all of this is happening at a time when women are more likely to start developing chronic health conditions. "So, you're dealing with obesity on one end, and estrogen decline on the other, at an age when people start developing heart disease," says Pradhan. The convergence of these factors can spell trouble for women in a way it simply doesn't for men, who don't have to deal with the hormonal imbalances.

How can I lower my risk?
It might seem obvious, but the best ways to reduce your risk of developing metabolic syndrome are to exercise more and to eat more healthfully. And while most of us are conditioned to believe we should keep our cholesterol levels as low as possible, you actually may want to get your good (HDL) cholesterol up if your number is below 50 mg/dL (40 mg/dL for men). One study found that a higher HDL level can help to reduce heart disease risk when LDL and triglycerides remain low. Eating antioxidant-rich veggies and foods high in omega-3s can help boost HDL.

Another strategy: Cut yourself some slack. A recent study found that people who felt stigmatized about their size had six times greater odds of having high triglycerides and were three times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. Feeling bad about your body can create a vicious cycle, says study co-author Rebecca Pearl, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "In our society, there seems to be this misperception that weight stigma is needed to motivate people to get healthy and change their behaviors. But in study after study that's just not the case." In fact, a negative self-image can create a ripple effect: You feel bad about your body, which stresses you out. In turn, that stress can increase levels of cortisol and inflammation in the body, which can trigger your appetite, increasing the odds that you'll eat more calories and reach for unhealthy foods. So, how do you change how you feel about your body? Instead of calling yourself "lazy," recall the things that you have accomplished that show you have the willpower to succeed. It'll help reset your mindset so you can start down a better, healthier path.

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