Link between Metabolic Syndrome and ME/CFS?

by Jody Smith


As is so often the case, the research on a possible correlation between metabolic syndrome and ME/CFS is scanty. When I came across this threadbare research, though, I was desperate enough to check it out for myself.

I recognized myself when I read about the weight gain and difficulties in dropping the weight, but what really rang a bell was when I read that brain function can be severely affected. A poorly-working brain has been one of the worst symptoms of ME/CFS that I struggle with.
Diabetes runs in my family, and the fact that I had so many signs of metabolic syndrome was no surprise. I’d been relatively slim most of my life, though after having my fifth baby I was fighting a certain amount of baby fat that didn’t want to cooperate.

This, while lamentable, is not uncommon. What was unusual was that around the time I began to have classic ME/CFS symptoms in my 30s, I was also experiencing an alarming increase in weight, most of it right around the middle.

I found that paying attention to the glycemic index and limiting carbohydrates reduced my cognitive difficulties, and my paresthesia (fancy word for bizarre physical sensations like buzzing, vibrating and swirling in my face, hands, arms and legs). 

I was encouraged to find that had reported that patients with ME/CFS may need to deal with metabolic syndrome. I found that when I began to treat my metabolic syndrome symptoms, I also had a lessening of my ME/CFS symptoms. Changing my diet a la metabolic syndrome caused that weight to disappear.
People with ME/CFS face more challenges than others in dealing with metabolic syndrome. Exercise is generally recommended for this condition, but exercise can also cause relapse or worsening of ME/CFS symptoms.

Diet changes are also recommended for metabolic syndrome, but for many ME/CFS patients buying and fixing foods can be quite daunting, and many must settle for whatever they can afford, and whatever they can manage to heat up and eat. Processed foods that are quick to prepare are all some patients can manage.

Link with cognitive issues

Research from NYU School of Medicine indicated a link between metabolic syndrome and brain dysfunction including cognitive issues for adolescents. The study is online in the September 3, 2012 issue of Pediatrics.
Investigator Antonio Convit, MD, professor of psychiatry and medicine at NYU School of Medicine and a member of the Nathan Kline Research Institute, and colleagues had found previously that metabolic syndrome was associated with neurocognitive abnormalities for adults, but the new research shows evidence of more severe brain dysfunction in teens.

This was noteworthy because this age group does not tend to have vascular disease or long-term slow metabolism which can be found in the adult population.
The teens in the study displayed poor math skills, impaired attention span and less mental flexibility. Brain structure and volume was evidenced by reduced volume in the hippocampus (which is involved with learning and remembering new information), less brain cerebrospinal fluid, and less microstructural integrity in the brain’s white matter.
Research from the French National Institute of Health Research, Bordeaux, France was published online in Neurology on February 2, 2011. Metabolic syndrome was seen to have a link with memory loss and dementia.

Also Known As 

Dr. Andrew Weil, Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine, University of Arizona, calls metabolic syndrome “a collection of conditions that when taken together dramatically increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.”

Metabolic syndrome is also known as syndrome X, insulin resistance syndrome or dysmetabolic syndrome.
Weil says that 25-30 percent of Americans may have metabolic syndrome. The risk for it increases with age: 40 percent of Americans have metabolic syndrome by their 60s and 70s.

Risk Factors 

There are several risk factors for metabolic syndrome. If you have three of these factors, you may have metabolic syndrome:

  • A waist circumference of at least 35 inches for women and at least 40 inches for men
  • Fasting blood glucose of at least 100 mg/dL
  • Serum triglycerides of at least 150 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure of at least 135/85mmHg
  • HDL or “good” cholesterol that is lower than 40 mg/dL for men or 50 mg/dL for women

Insulin resistance is an element of metabolic syndrome. This means insulin levels are high, causing problems like chronic inflammation, arterial wall damage, decreased output of salt by the kidneys, and thickening of the blood. These issues will only increase over time if the condition isn’t treated.
Insulin resistance makes cells less sensitive to insulin. Glucose in the blood increases, the pancreas overcompensates by manufacturing more insulin. The heightened insulin levels provoke a stress response involving higher levels of cortisol which is a long-acting stress hormone. This leads to an inflammatory reaction in the body that can ultimately damage tissue.
Sleep apnea and other sleep abnormalities can increase insulin resistance and exacerbate metabolic syndrome.

Dietary Recommendations

Weil recommends eating an anti-inflammatory diet. He suggests eating meals that are small and frequent which helps to maintain healthy blood sugar. This prevents the overwhelming of the bloodstream with glucose and insulin.
Weil advises limiting refined sugars and starches. Foods that are low on the glycemic index help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. He favors monounsaturated oils like olive oil, and avoiding trans fats and saturated fats.
Cold-water fish, like salmon and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Supplements of omega-3 fatty acids can also be beneficial. Avoid starchy vegetables and stick with other veggies like asparagus, bell peppers, cucumbers, dark leafy greens and zucchini.
Foods that are high in magnesium may lower the risk for metabolic syndrome. Eat such foods as almonds, avocados, beans, leafy green vegetables and halibut. Limit your alcohol content, especially beer to keep triglyceride levels down.


It certainly seems to me that I deal with metabolic syndrome, and the cognitive problems associated with it. Fortunately I don’t have to wait for definitive acknowledgement from any organizations or doctors in order for me to proceed with my decision to incorporate this information into my recovery plan.

And as I have been able to reduce my ME/CFS symptoms this way, I’ll continue to do my best to win against metabolic syndrome, and protect my beleaguered brain in the process.

Further reading

Not Depression, More Like Alzheimer’s
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a Low Carb Diet
CFS Clinical Pearl: Recognizing Metabolic Syndrome B
Directors: Andrew Weil, MD
Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome associated with cognitive and brain impairments in adolescents
Metabolic syndrome linked to cognitive decline in older adults


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