The metabolic syndrome is a bit like smoothie makers. Everyone’s heard of them, many people seem to have them, but no-one is quite sure what to do with them. So let’s have a look at how the metabolic syndrome came to enter our vocabulary, what it really means and whether it is something that could help us to look after our patients better or just another cumbersome tool that produces a lot of heat but no light.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex and distressing life-long condition. It is the commonest endocrine disorder among women of reproductive age, affecting 5-15% of women. PCOS causes short-term effects due to hormonal imbalance as well as longterm effects relating to underlying insulin resistance and consequent hyperinsulinaemia, a form of metabolic syndrome. How can we achieve effective reduction of risk factors in these women to prevent premature cardiovascular disease?
The metabolic syndrome is characterised by a cluster of metabolic risk factors which may include abdominal obesity, dyslipidaemia, high blood pressure and insulin resistance or glucose intolerance. Patients with this cluster are at increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The dominant underlying risk factors for the syndrome are abdominal obesity and insulin resistance – so the epidemic of obesity means that we will be seeing a major increase in cases of metabolic syndrome over the next few years. Management requires tight control of all risk factors, with weight loss and prevention of weight gain being important preventive measures.
Type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome (where a patient has a cluster of metabolic risk factors, including atherogenic dyslipidaemia, raised blood pressure and insulin resistance) are growing problems. Most researchers believe that the key is central obesity – fat stored in the abdomen around internal organs, which produces inflammatory mediators such as tumour necrosis factor (TNF). This leads to insulin resistance, when the normal amount of insulin secreted by the pancreas is no longer able to activate receptors on body cells, resulting in impaired glucose metabolism. However, this is an evolving science and the precise details are not yet fully understood. The insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome often leads to type 2 diabetes as the pancreas becomes less responsive, but this is not inevitable.