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Metabolic Syndrome

Last Updated November 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Peter Rippey, MD, CAQSM

What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is the term used to describe a set of risk factors for heart disease. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes or high blood sugars.

What is insulin resistance?

Your body changes most of the food you eat into glucose (a form of sugar). Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin allows glucose to enter all the cells of your body and be used as energy.

For some people, over time, their body’s tissues stop responding to insulin. Doctors refer to this condition as insulin resistance. If you have insulin resistance, your body will make more and more insulin. Because your tissues don’t respond to it, your body can’t use glucose properly.

How does this relate to metabolic syndrome?

Insulin resistance often goes along with other health problems. These include obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. These problems are all risk factors for heart disease. When a person has many of these problems at the same time, doctors commonly call it metabolic syndrome. It is sometimes called insulin resistance syndrome or metabolic syndrome X. Many people who have type 2 diabetes also have metabolic syndrome.

Symptoms of metabolic syndrome

For the most part, metabolic syndrome does not have any true signs or symptoms. If you gain weight around your waist, it can be one indicator of metabolic syndrome.

But some of the other diseases that go along with metabolic syndrome do have symptoms. These include possible frequent urination and unusual thirst when you have diabetes.

What causes metabolic syndrome?

A number of factors can act together to cause metabolic syndrome. A person who takes in too many calories and too much saturated fat and does not get enough physical activity may develop metabolic syndrome. Other causes include insulin resistance and a family history of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and blood tests. He or she can diagnosis metabolic syndrome if at least 3 of the following are true:

  • You are overweight or have obesty, and you carry the weight around your middle. For men, this means a waist that measures greater than 40 inches around. For women, it means a waist that measures greater than 35 inches around.
  • You have higher than normal blood pressure (130/85 mm Hg or greater).
  • You have a higher-than-normal amount of sugar in your blood (a fasting blood sugar of 100 mg/dL or greater).
  • You have a higher-than-normal amount of fat in your blood (a triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or greater).
  • You have a lower-than-normal high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol level (an HDL level less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 30 for women). HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol.

The more of these risk factors you have, the higher your risk of heart disease.

Can metabolic syndrome be prevented or avoided?

A healthy lifestyle can help prevent metabolic syndrome. This includes losing weight if you’re overweight. It also includes getting more physical activity and eating a healthy diet. Also, if you smoke, you should stop.

Metabolic syndrome treatment

If you already have metabolic syndrome, making these healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk of heart disease and other health problems. If lifestyle changes alone can’t control your risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help.

Maintain a healthy weight.

Your doctor can measure your body mass index (BMI) to determine a healthy weight for your height. He or she can help you make a plan to lose weight if you’re overweight, and to maintain your weight through a healthy diet and regular physical activity. Carrying extra weight in your abdomen is especially unhealthy. Losing this weight or exchanging it for muscle weight will improve health.

Get more physical activity.

Not being active is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. It’s important to get exercise on a regular basis. Start by talking with your family doctor, especially if you haven’t been active for a while. You may need to begin with some light exercise, such as walking. Then you can gradually increase how hard you exercise and for how long. A good goal for many people is to work up to exercising 4 to 6 times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. A minimum of 150 minutes a week is best for good health. Two days of resistance or strength training each week is also recommended for health. Your doctor can help you set a goal that’s right for you.

Eat a healthy diet.

When combined with exercise, a healthy diet can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol level, and improve the way your body functions. Foods high in dietary fiber should be a regular part of your diet. You should eat several servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread every day. Also, limit the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium (salt), and added sugar in your diet.

Living with metabolic syndrome

Improving your heath through diet and exercise if often enough to prevent metabolic syndrome. You may also need to take medicine for diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Being proactive about your health will help reduce your risk for heart disease.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • I have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. Is it possible I have metabolic syndrome?
  • I have metabolic syndrome. Should I be screened for diabetes?
  • Should I talk with a dietitian about changing the way I eat?
  • What kind of exercise is best for me?
  • Are there any medicines I should take for metabolic syndrome?
  • My mother has diabetes. Am I at higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome?


National Institutes of Health: What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Metabolic Syndrome

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