Metabolic syndrome is a term used to describe a cluster of risk factors that, together, increase the risk for developing heart disease and diabetes, and for experiencing a stroke. These risk factors include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, high blood levels of fats known as triglycerides and excess body weight, particularly in the belly area. You’ll learn more about each of these risk factors below.
Metabolic syndrome is common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the syndrome affects one out of three adults, with risk increasing with age.
Why Metabolic Syndrome Matters
Combined, the risk factors that form metabolic syndrome greatly increase someone’s risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. According to the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, metabolic syndrome doubles the risk of heart disease. A person with metabolic syndrome is at a five times greater risk of diabetes as someone without the syndrome.
Diagnosing Metabolic Syndrome
There is no single test to diagnose metabolic syndrome. Your physician will generally diagnose the syndrome if you have three of the five risk factors below:
- Abdominal obesity. Having a waist that measures 35 inches or more for women or 40 inches or more for men is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome.
- High fasting blood sugar. You are at risk of metabolic syndrome if you have a fasting blood sugar of 100 mg/dL or higher or if you are on medications to treat high blood sugar.
- High blood pressure. A blood pressure of 130/85 mmHg or higher or being on medications to treat high blood pressure is a risk factor for the syndrome.
- Low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. This type of cholesterol helps remove harmful LDL cholesterol from your arteries. A low blood HDL cholesterol level is less than 50 mg/dL in women or less than 40 mg/dL for men. You are also at risk if you are on medications to treat a low HDL cholesterol level.
- High triglycerides. Triglycerides are a form of fat that is found in the bloodstream. A high triglyceride level is 150 mg/dL or higher or being on medications to lower your triglycerides.
Managing Metabolic Syndrome
Lifestyle changes are the first mode of treatment for metabolic syndrome. Making lifestyle changes can reduce your overall risk of cardiovascular disease and may even reverse metabolic syndrome. That is, you may no longer meet the criteria of having three risk factors for the condition. Common lifestyle changes for treating metabolic syndrome include the following:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Some research suggests that the Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, fish, olive oil, etc.) may be beneficial in reversing metabolic syndrome. Learn more about a heart-healthy diet and nutrition here.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight. Talk with your physician about a weight-loss plan and ask about professionals such as dieticians who may be available to help you.
- Monitor and control your blood glucose levels. Insulin resistance appears to be closely tied with metabolic syndrome. Insulin is a hormone that is necessary to transfer glucose (a form of sugar) to your cells, which use the glucose for energy. If the cells cannot use the glucose, it builds up in your bloodstream.
- Monitor and control your blood pressure. A low-salt diet, exercise, and weight loss may all help to lower your blood pressure. Your physician may also prescribe medications. You can learn about high blood pressure, and strategies for controlling it, here.
- Engage in regular physical activity. Strive to get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, under the advice of your physician. We suggest tips for getting active here.
If your doctor prescribes medication to help manage your risk factors, be sure to take those medications exactly as prescribed. Additionally, smoking, while not directly related to metabolic syndrome, can, in conjunction with metabolic syndrome, greatly increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, seek help from your doctor in quitting, and avoid contact with secondhand smoke when possible.
Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider
- Do I have the risk factors for metabolic syndrome?
- What is my risk level for heart attack, stroke, or diabetes?
- What lifestyle changes do I need to make to manage metabolic syndrome?
- Which change should I work on first?
- What resources are available to me to help me make heart-healthy lifestyle changes?
- Do I need medications in addition to lifestyle changes to control metabolic syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is tied to your overall cardiovascular health. If you have metabolic syndrome, you are at increased risk of a range of cardiovascular conditions and diabetes. For more information about coronary heart disease, visit the Coronary Artery Disease and Heart Attack condition centers. To learn more about stroke, visit the Stroke and Carotid Artery Disease condition centers. The Diabetes condition center can help you understand how diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are connected.