Metabolic Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Metabolic syndrome is classified as a combination of medical disorders. It is a serious health condition that affects about 23 percent of adults in America while placing them at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and disease related to fatty buildups in the artery walls.

For instance, when a person has high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and  abdominal obesity, this person will be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and will be at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular complications.

The underlying causes of metabolic syndrome include obesity, lack of exercise, age, and genetic factors. Although metabolic syndrome is a very serious condition, you can take certain steps to significantly reduce your risk of developing this condition.

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome refers to the cluster of conditions that causes an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.  Metabolic syndrome is also known as metabolic syndrome X, cardiometabolic syndrome, syndrome X, insulin resistance syndrome, and Reaven’s syndrome.

It is defined slightly differently by various organizations, including the International Diabetes Federation, World Health Organization, European Group for the Study of Insulin Resistance and the US National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP); all require at least three of the following conditions in order for someone to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:

  • Increased blood pressure: High blood pressure is a sign of metabolic syndrome. High blood pressure requires a systolic (top number) blood pressure measurement of 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or more. It may also mean a diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure measurement of 85 mm Hg or more.
  • Obesity: Obesity is a condition in which body fat is concentrated around your waist. People who are obese tend to have an “apple shape.” Excess fat in the abdominal area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips. For a metabolic syndrome diagnosis, obesity is defined by having a waist circumference of 40 inches (102 cm) or more for men and 35 inches (89 cm) or more for women, although waist circumference cutoff points can vary by race.
  • High levels of “bad” Cholesterol: This is when the level of the blood fat called triglycerides is 150 mg/dL, (1.7 millimoles/liter or mmol/L) or more.
    Low levels of “good” cholesterol: The level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the “good” cholesterol — is less than 40 mg/dL (1.04 mmol/L) for men or 50 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L) for women.
  • High Blood Sugar Levels: Those with high blood sugar or who are on medication to treat high blood sugar are at risk of having metabolic syndrome. High blood sugar levels may be an early sign of diabetes. You are at increased risk of metabolic syndrome if your fasting plasma glucose is greater than 6.1 mmol/L (110 mg/dl).

Causes of Metabolic Syndrome

Environment and genes play a very important role in the development of metabolic syndrome.

  • Genetic factors: An individual has high chances of developing metabolic syndrome if one of the family members suffers from hypertension, type 2 diabetes or early heart disease.
  • Inactive lifestyle: Low levels of physical activity and weight gain can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome. Studies show that 5% of people with normal body weight have metabolic syndrome, which rises to 22% for those who are overweight and 60% for those who are considered obese. One’s risk for metabolic syndrome increases 23% (20–27%) per 4.5 kg (10 lb) of weight gained.

Other risk factors for metabolic syndrome include:

  • Smoking
  • Postmenopausal women
  • Diets that are high in fat or carbohydrates
  • Alcohol consumption: those who drink in excess of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (i.e., men who usually drink more than two drinks per day or women who usually drink more than one drink per day) or those who binge drink are at increased risk.

Metabolic Syndrome Treatment

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. Someone who is 40% overweight is twice as likely to die prematurely as a person of healthy weight due to the increased risk factor for heart disease, as well as other diseases and conditions.

That said, medication and aggressive lifestyle changes can improve conditions that, together, are associated with metabolic syndrome. Getting more physical activity, losing weight, and quitting smoking will help reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The following changes are key to reducing your risk.

  • Exercise. Doctors have recommended that one should get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises, such as brisk walking, every day.
  • Lose weight. Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can reduce insulin and blood pressure levels and decrease your risk of diabetes.
  • Eat healthily. Limit unhealthy fats and emphasize fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet or Mediterranean Diet are excellent diets, as both offer important health benefits — in addition to weight loss — for people who have components of metabolic syndrome. Ask your doctor before starting a new dietary regimen.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking cigarettes increase insulin resistance and can worsen the health consequences of metabolic syndrome. Talk to your doctor if you need help kicking the cigarette habit.

Talking to your doctor and ask him or her to help monitor your weight and your blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels, as it is imperative to ensure that the lifestyle modifications you are making are effectively working.

If you’re not able to reach your goals with lifestyle changes, your doctor may also prescribe medications to lower blood pressure, control cholesterol or help you lose weight. Your doctor may suggest options like taking a daily aspirin, which may help reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Foods to Eat with Metabolic Syndrome

Research has proven that what you consume can play a huge role in your overall wellbeing. When considering foods to eat on a metabolic syndrome treatment plan, you should avoid processed, fake foods with additives, diet sodas, trans fat, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, sugar and unhealthy sugar alternatives. Listed below are foods that can help treat and prevent metabolic syndrome:

  • Wheat germ oil
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Almonds
  • Spinach
  • Hazelnuts
  • Broccoli

Metabolic Syndrome Prevention

Whether you have one, two, or none of the components of metabolic syndrome, the following lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke:

  • Commit to a healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose lean cuts of white meat or fish over red meat. Avoid processed or deep-fried foods. Eliminate table salt and experiment with other herbs and spices.
  • Get moving. Get lots of regular, moderately strenuous physical activity.
  • Schedule regular checkups. Check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels on a regular basis. Make additional lifestyle modifications if your numbers are going the wrong way.

Final Words for Those Struggling with Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a set of risk factors that, occurring together, significantly increases your chances of heart disease and diabetes. Fortunately, there are a number of lifestyle modifications that can prevent or treat metabolic syndrome, including changing your diet, lowering your body mass index, quitting smoking, significantly lowering alcohol consumption and regular daily exercise. Medication, for example, for high blood pressure or cholesterol can also treat the individual risk factors of metabolic syndrome and help prevent or treat the disease.

Quick FAQs

1. What’s metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome refers to the cluster of conditions that cause an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.  

2. What causes metabolic syndrome?

The underlying causes of metabolic syndrome include obesity, lack of exercise, age, and genetic factors.


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