What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

In This Article

Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of conditions that together increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular problems, including heart attack. The features of metabolic syndrome are hypertension (high blood pressure), high blood sugar, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood), and excess abdominal fat. Metabolic syndrome affects between 30% and 40% of adults by age 65.

It's rare to have metabolic syndrome symptoms—so the diagnosis depends on blood tests and other clinical measures. Lifestyle changes are the first choice for treating metabolic syndrome, although in some cases medication is necessary.

Metabolic Syndrome Is Also Known As

  • MetSyn
  • MetS
  • Syndrome X
  • Insulin resistance syndrome
  • Dysmetabolic syndrome
metabolic syndrome
Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Symptoms

One of the key features of metabolic syndrome is that it is asymptomatic. That's important for you to know because the individual components of the syndrome can worsen without your realizing it.

However, several symptoms can be associated with the condition—you may or may not experience them if you have metabolic syndrome. The most noticeable sign of metabolic syndrome is weight gain, and you could have the condition if you are overweight and/or have a large waist circumference.

Clinical symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome include:

The symptoms you can experience when you have metabolic syndrome are due to the effects of each individual component of the syndrome. Hypertension can cause dizziness, fatigue, and headaches. High blood sugar can cause sleep issues, fatigue, dizziness, thirst, dry mouth, and frequent urination. Obesity can cause fatigue and snoring.

While the fact that metabolic syndrome is usually asymptomatic can seem scary, it's important for you to know that diagnosis is not elusive, and your routine physicals can identify the syndrome.

Causes and Risk Factors

Metabolic syndrome is caused by a mix of lifestyle factors, genetic predisposition, and other health risk factors you can't control. Some factors overlap and amplify each other. For example, obesity is associated with hypertension and high triglyceride levels. And hypertension is associated with high blood glucose levels.

Risk factors for metabolic syndrome include:

  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • A high calorie or a high carbohydrate diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Family history of diabetes or metabolic syndrome
  • Advancing age
  • Being caucasian
  • Being a male

Although a distinct cause of metabolic syndrome has not been identified, it is strongly linked to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body isn't able to effectively use insulin to transfer glucose (sugar) from the blood into the cells so it can be used for energy. With insulin resistance, sugar can build up in the blood, which may eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.

Excess body weight is associated with visceral (in the abdomen) adipose tissue (fat). Also referred to as belly fat, visceral fat surrounds the internal organs and is associated with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance contributes to weight gain and weight gain, in turn, contributes to insulin resistance.

In addition, research suggests that visceral abdominal fat is pro-inflammatory and may release toxins that can affect insulin sensitivity.

A number of health conditions often co-exist with metabolic syndrome, including type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, and sleep apnea. These conditions are also linked to altered insulin/glucose metabolism and chronic inflammation.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of metabolic syndrome is straightforward and based on specific criteria. Screening for the components of metabolic syndrome is a part of a routine medical check-up, and if you regularly keep up with your health maintenance appointments, your tests would likely show signs of the condition at an early stage.

If you have three or more of these five clinical markers, you would be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:

Note that even if you have only one or two of these criteria, you may be at risk of metabolic syndrome and its complications. Getting treatment before you meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome can help prevent health issues from developing.

Treatment

Often, metabolic syndrome is reversible. If you have the condition, it's important that you start treatment. Metabolic syndrome worsens when it is left untreated, and the complications can cause a serious decline in your health.

Weight loss is often recommended, but not if you aren't overweight. A body mass index (BMI) under 25 is ideal. For most people, losing 5% to 10% of total body weight can improve insulin sensitivity and decrease the effects of metabolic syndrome.

Sometimes diet and exercise are sufficient to attain a target weight, but bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery) can be an option for people with a BMI of 40 or higher, or a BMI of 35 to 39 with weight-related health conditions.

Diet

Modifying your diet can go a long way in reversing metabolic syndrome, especially at an early stage.

Dietary strategies include:

  • Getting plenty of vegetables, fresh fruit, lean proteins, and plant-based fats (for example, olive oil and avocado)
  • Avoiding added sugar
  • Making sure you have adequate fiber in your daily diet
  • Watching calories and portion sizes
  • Avoiding a high-carbohydrate diet

Diet has an impact on metabolic syndrome that is independent of weight loss. So you need to incorporate these habits even if you don't have a high BMI.

Exercise

Exercise can help you lose weight, and it also protects against metabolic syndrome's effects independently of weight. Regular exercise lowers triglyceride levels, raises HDL, and may lower blood pressure for some people. Getting regular exercise several times per week is an effective approach for managing metabolic syndrome—the key is it needs to be consistent.

Physical activity guidelines typically call for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. More is better, of course, but any amount can be beneficial. Some research suggests that high-intensity interval training could be especially helpful for metabolic syndrome, in less time.

Consider getting a professionally directed exercise regimen to ensure that you are getting the exercise you need—while avoiding exercise-induced injuries.

Lifestyle Factors

Diet and exercise have a major impact on metabolic syndrome. But other lifestyle factors also play an important role.

Lifestyle modifications that can help reduce the effects of metabolic syndrome include:

  • Getting quality sleep—six hours per night at the very least
  • Quitting smoking
  • Managing stress through practices such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing

The key is that managing metabolic syndrome requires sustained lifestyle habits—it is not based on a one-time event or temporary effort that you can stop once you reach a certain milestone.

Medication

In many cases, lifestyle changes alone can counter metabolic syndrome, but sometimes prescription medications are needed. You and your doctor can determine whether your lifestyle modifications are enough or if you need to take medication to manage your metabolic syndrome.

Your doctor may prescribe:

Children

It is important to know that children can have features of metabolic syndrome and can develop health complications of the condition.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should be screened for the individual components of metabolic syndrome—obesity, hypertension, high blood glucose, and fat and cholesterol levels in the blood. Children should be treated for any of these issues even if they don't meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome.

Prognosis

Metabolic syndrome can lead to serious health consequences. Each of the factors on its own increases the risk of life-threatening disease, like heart attack and stroke. And each one of these factors is interrelated to the others.

Complications of metabolic syndrome include:

  • Diabetes: A disease in which the body does not adequately metabolize blood glucose. The resulting high levels of blood sugar can lead to damage of the eyes, blood vessels, kidneys, and nerves.
  • Atherosclerosis: Stiffness of the blood vessels and a buildup of cholesterol plaques increases the risk of blockages in the heart (heart attack) or the brain (stroke).
  • Kidney disease: Chronic hypertension, elevated blood glucose, and vascular disease can damage the kidneys, eventually leading to kidney failure and a possible need for dialysis.
  • Peripheral vascular disease: Blood flow in the legs can become impaired, resulting in pain, fatigue, and problems with wound healing.

Left untreated, metabolic syndrome doubles the risk of heart disease and increases diabetes risk by five times within 10 years of diagnosis. But since the components of metabolic syndrome can be measured, your doctor can follow your improvement over time and adjust your treatment as needed.

A Word From Verywell

Metabolic syndrome can have serious repercussions if left untreated, but at the same time, it's very possible to reverse it without the need for medication or other medical therapies. Many people can effectively deal with metabolic syndrome by losing weight, exercising, improving their diet, and quitting smoking. It can be challenging to make such alterations in your lifestyle, but lowering your risk of serious chronic diseases makes the effort worth it.

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