Sympathetic system activity in obesity and metabolic syndrome

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 Nov;1083:129-52. doi: 10.1196/annals.1367.010.


Obesity is a very common disease worldwide, resulting from a disturbance in the energy balance. The metabolic syndrome is also a cluster of abnormalities with basic characteristics being insulin resistance and visceral obesity. The major concerns of obesity and metabolic syndrome are the comorbidities, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain types of cancers. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity is associated with both energy balance and metabolic syndrome. Sympathomimetic medications decrease food intake, increase resting metabolic rate (RMR), and thermogenic responses, whereas blockage of the SNS exerts opposite effects. The contribution of the SNS to the daily energy expenditure, however, is small ( approximately 5%) in normal subjects consuming a weight maintenance diet. Fasting suppresses, whereas meal ingestion induces SNS activity. Most of the data agree that obesity is characterized by SNS predominance in the basal state and reduced SNS responsiveness after various sympathetic stimuli. Weight loss reduces SNS overactivity in obesity. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by enhanced SNS activity. Most of the indices used for the assessment of its activity are better associated with visceral fat than with total fat mass. Visceral fat is prone to lipolysis: this effect is mediated by catecholamine action on the sensitive beta(3)-adrenoceptors found in the intraabdominal fat. In addition, central fat distribution is associated with disturbances in the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, suggesting that a disturbed axis may be implicated in the development of the metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, SNS activity induces a proinflammatory state by IL-6 production, which in turn results in an acute phase response. The increased levels of inflammatory markers seen in the metabolic syndrome may be elicited, at least in part, by SNS overactivity. Intervention studies showed that the disturbances of the autonomic nervous system seen in the metabolic syndrome are reversible.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Eating
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Leptin / metabolism
  • Metabolic Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Weight Gain
  • Weight Loss


  • Leptin