The Metabolic Syndrome and the Immune System
The metabolic syndrome is not a disease alone but is a cluster of related disorders that include:
- Excess fat around the waist (>40 inches or more (men)and >35 inches or more for women).
- Blood pressure of 130 /85 mmHg or higher, or being on blood pressure medication
- Triglycerides above 150 mg/dl
- Fasting blood glucose greater than 100 mg/dl, or being on glucose-lowering medications
- High density lipoprotein (HDL) less than 40 mg/dl for men or less than 50 mg/dl for women.
A person can be considered to have metabolic syndrome if they have at least three of these conditions.
An important function of the immune system is to provide healthy, short-term (acute) inflammation that is normal in most situations. This is necessary for the immune function to battle injuries made from disease-causing bacteria, and viruses (antigens). What results is redness, swelling, heat, sometimes fever, and pain.
However, one of the unhealthiest conditions is paradoxically chronic inflammation that ultimately can result in complications, and even a greater risk of death. The greater overreaction of immune system components is often referred to a “cytokine storm”. Cytokines are small proteins that are used to convey information. I call them “messengers”. They play a crucial role in the development of diseases and how your cells are able to respond. In a sense, cytokines are the language of your immune system.
Chronic inflammation can come from the accumulation of belly fat as well as low levels of HDL cholesterol, which normally can have anti-inflammatory properties. (Scott Butsch, MD, Director of Obesity Medicine at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.)
“Those with metabolic syndrome typically have low levels of HDL and thus, have less of its beneficial properties to fight infection”, says Dr. Butsch. This can also occur with aging, poor diet, and other unhealthy practices.
How Does Obesity affect the Immune System?
“One of the many reasons obesity is such an unhealthy thing is that fat tissue produces loads of inflammatory cytokines. So even on a good day, an obese person has a lot of inflammatory biomarkers (signals) in their system. When infected by the coronavirus, for example, their starting point is already worse, they are already more inflamed than they should be. In any case, the coronavirus pandemic was a stark reminder of why your immune system is so incredibly important and why we should all benefit from understanding it better.” (Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps you Alive. Philipp Dettner. 2021).
According to Dr. Butsch, “obesity impairs the response of immune cells that “remember past viruses so you can attack that virus effectively the second time you may encounter it. This is why obesity is linked to an increased failure of vaccines”
How Can You Improve Immunity with Metabolic Syndrome?
“Losing weight is the key to improve your metabolic syndrome biomarkers as well as your immune system responses. When you lose some extra weight, your fat cells shrink and cause an improvement in systemic chronic inflammation,” Dr. Butsch says. Increasing your physical activity may also help. In this case, this is one time that eating less and moving more is primary to decreased inflammation, metabolic syndrome biomarkers and its complications from infectious diseases.