Stress appears to increase a person’s chances of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of unhealthy factors that add up to an increased risk for serious problems, a new study finds.

Inflammation driven by a person’s stress levels can make them more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, just as their lifestyle and genetics also contribute to the risk, researchers said.

So, simple stress-reduction techniques might be a way to help improve people’s health as they enter middle age, the researchers concluded.

“There are many variables that influence metabolic syndrome, some we can’t modify, but others that we can,” said senior study author Jasmeet Hayes, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“Everybody experiences stress, and stress management is one modifiable factor that’s cost-effective as well as something people can do in their daily lives without having to get medical professionals involved,” Hayes added in a university news release.

People with metabolic syndrome have at least three of five factors that increase the risk of chronic health problems like diabetes or heart disease.

These factors are excess belly fat, high blood pressure, low HDL “good” cholesterol and high levels of either blood sugar or “bad” triglycerides, researchers said.

For this study, researchers analyzed medical data from nearly 650 people taking part in a study of midlife health in the United States. The study gathered information about participants’ stress levels, blood markers for inflammation and risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

“There’s not much research that has looked at all three variables at one time,” said lead researcher Savana Jurgens, a psychology graduate student in Hayes’ lab. “There’s a lot of work that suggests stress is associated with inflammation, inflammation is associated with metabolic syndrome and stress is associated with metabolic syndrome. But putting all those pieces together is rare.”

Analysis revealed that stress is indeed significantly related to metabolic syndrome.

Further, researchers found that inflammation explained more than half of that connection — nearly 62%, to be precise.

“There is a small effect of perceived stress on metabolic syndrome, but inflammation explained a large proportion of that,” Jurgens said.

Other factors included lack of physical activity, unhealthy diet, smoking, poor sleep, low income, advanced age and being female, researchers said.

However, since an estimated one in three American adults has metabolic syndrome, every factor contributing to this health crisis must be taken into account, researchers argued.

“People think of stress as mental health, that it’s all psychological. It is not. There are real physical effects to having chronic stress,” Hayes said. “It could be inflammation, it could be metabolic syndrome or a number of things. This is another reminder of that.”

Future studies will take a closer look at the specific effects stress has on metabolic syndrome, and whether stress management can reduce inflammation.

The new report was published recently in the journal Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health.

More information

The American Heart Association has more about metabolic syndrome.

SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, Jan. 12, 2024