What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

Medically reviewed by Dr. Stacy Hengisman MD and Felice Ramallo MSRD.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that can cause serious long-term health problems and raise your risk of things like coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. While metabolic syndrome may not be as well known as more well-known, recognizable health problems, such as type 2 diabetes or arthritis, it is extremely common within the US – in fact, approximately 1 in 3 US adults have metabolic syndrome. The good news here? This condition is also largely preventable (though there are risk factors, which we will get into later), which means that we can take steps to reduce the likelihood that now, or in the near future, you will be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. In this article we’ll be diving into what metabolic syndrome entails, conditions, risk factors, implications of this disease, and lifestyle changes that can make all the difference in either reducing your likelihood of being diagnosed with it, or even be helpful in reversing a diagnosis.

Defining metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome isn’t diagnosed through one singular test or symptom; instead it is characterized by a “cluster of conditions” which, taken together increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (the type that comes from insulin resistance as a result of diet and lifestyle factors, as opposed to genetic factors, in the case of type 1 diabetes).

Conditions of metabolic syndrome

Conditions of metabolic syndrome include:

  • Storing fat in your stomach, resulting in a large waistline
  • Some of us are more likely to store fat in certain areas (such as the stomach, arms, thighs, and so forth) than others, but metabolic syndrome is known for its association with “abdominal obesity.” Specifically, storing fat in your stomach as opposed to other areas of your body is “the biggest risk factor for heart disease,” according to the National Institute of Health.
  • Johns Hopkins specifies that, for women, a waist circumference of 35 inches and a waist circumference of 40 inches and over for men is considered wide.
  • High blood pressure
  • This isn’t a good thing in general; high blood pressure (or hypertension, as it’s sometimes called) means your heart has to work harder to pump blood, and “the force of blood pushing against the artery walls is consistently too high.”
  • High blood pressure can also cause plaque to build up in your arteries, which can lead to heart and blood vessel diseases (such as heart attack and stroke)
  • High blood sugar
  • Also called hyperglycemia, high blood sugar means there is too much sugar in the blood because the body lacks insulin.
  • High blood sugar can be extremely serious; untreated for long periods of time, it can damage nerves, blood vessels, tissues, and organs (this damage to blood vessels can also lead to eye damage and kidney damage)
  • High blood triglycerides
  • Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in your blood. Too high levels can lead to higher LDL cholesterol (ie ‘bad’ cholesterol) and raise your risk of heart disease.
  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • The opposite of LDL cholesterol, which can cause plaque to build up in your blood vessels, HDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps remove LDL from your blood vessels.

What are the physical symptoms of metabolic syndrome?

Interestingly, the conditions we discussed above don’t necessarily have that many physical symptoms, but they can often be identified by either measuring your own waist, getting your blood pressure taken, or having a glucose test performed. However, it’s worth noting that since “most people who have metabolic syndrome have insulin resistance,” if we look at symptoms of insulin resistance, we may see some overlap with metabolic syndrome. Indeed, according to Johns Hopkins, “if the body can’t make enough insulin to override the resistance, the blood sugar level increases, causing type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome may be a start of the development of type 2 diabetes.”

That being said, here are potential symptoms of insulin resistance:

  • Waistline over 40 inches in men
  • Waistline over 35 inches in women
  • Blood pressure readings of 130/80 (or more)
  • Fasting glucose level of 100mg/dL (or higher)
  • Fasting triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL
  • Skin tags
  • Patches of dark skin

Over time, if your cells become too resistant to insulin, hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar levels) can ensue, which can eventually lead to prediabetes and ultimately type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Slow-healing sores
  • Frequent infections
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Frequently needing to urinate

Risk factors of metabolic syndrome

According to the National Institute of Health, “a person’s weight is a major cause of metabolic syndrome” – this is because fat cells, particularly those in the abdomen, can raise levels of free fatty acids. These chemicals, in turn, can affect blood sugar levels, meaning your body may struggle to respond to insulin over time. Unfortunately, free fatty acids and insulin resistance can also raise levels of LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ kind) and can raise your blood pressure as well as triglyceride levels. The takeaway here? Being overweight or obese, and in particular storing a lot of fat in the stomach, is associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome.

From there, other risk factors of metabolic syndrome include:

  • Lifestyle
  • Being inactive
  • Eating an unhealthy diet, mainly of processed foods
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Smoking
  • Drinking excess amounts of alcohol
  • Occupation
  • Those who work night shifts may have disrupted circadian clocks, which can impact how we absorb nutrients from food
  • Family history
  • If other family members have diabetes or metabolic syndrome, this could mean you are at increased risk
  • Age
  • Typically, the chances of developing metabolic syndrome increase as you age
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Unfortunately, thanks to food deserts, lack of access to healthcare, lack of affordable public transportation, and a plethora of other factors, being low-income can mean accessing affordable, healthy foods is difficult if not outright impossible
  • Medical conditions
  • Having PCOS may mean, for not entirely understood reasons, you are at increased risk for unexplained weight gain, lower levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, and higher triglyceride levels. On top of this, psychological and emotional stressors associated with PCOS can lead to lack of quality sleep, which only exacerbates the issue.  
  • Gender
  • Unfortunately women have higher rates of metabolic syndrome than men, likely due to hormonal changes after menopause

Implications of metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a serious condition because of the effects it can wield on your long term health. Having metabolic syndrome means your risk of heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis (fatty buildup in artery walls), and general strain on your organs is increased. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken – even if you have recently been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome – in order to reverse the diagnosis and put less strain on your body.

Lifestyle changes

There is no magic bullet for reversing, or preventing, metabolic syndrome. In fact, it is much more effective to shoot for consistency and balance over extreme ups and downs, characterized by moments in which you eat ‘healthily’ and others in which you purge or overindulge. (Learn about concrete ways to implement healthy habits into your lifestyle, here).

The most impactful changes you can make – again, shooting for consistency over perfection – in order to preserve your heart and overall body health include:

  • Stopping smoking and use of tobacco products
  • Eating more unprocessed food (beans, vegetables, fruit, lentils) and less processed food (fries, burgers, bread, pasta)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Speak to your doctor before incorporating any new regimens or exercise habits if you have pre-existing conditions or if you are unsure where to begin
  • Eating more foods that promote ‘good’ cholesterol and reducing foods associated with ‘bad cholesterol’
  • This means more olive oil, whole grains, beans and legumes, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds, and fewer animal products in your diet
  • Scheduling regular check ups with your doctor and paying attention to your health
  • Get your blood pressure checked regularly, and make your healthcare provider aware of any family medical history you may have, as well as pre-existing conditions and troubling symptoms

Going to see your doctor

Remember that metabolic syndrome itself is characterized by a cluster of conditions, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and high levels of cholesterol which don’t come with the same visible side-effects (such as hair loss or brittle nails, in the case of a potential thyroid disorder) that some other conditions do.  

That’s why, first and foremost, you should schedule regular visits with your doctor to get your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels checked. You should also be vigilant and note any of the following symptoms, which may be indicative of pre-diabetes or even type 2 diabetes:

  • Blurred vision
  • Increased third
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Fatigue

Even if you don’t have any of the above symptoms, but you notice you store most weight in your stomach, and have a waist over 35” (if you’re a woman) or 40” (if you’re a man), it could be worth checking in with your doctor to get the right tests run and begin talking about proactive measures you can take to implement optimal steps for your long-term health.

Finally, always talk to your doctor before incorporating drastic changes to your diet or exercise regimes, so that you can make positive changes in a safe, consistent, and effective way.  

Allara provides personalized treatment that takes the guesswork out of managing PCOS, and offers a customized, holistic plan of attack that merges nutrition, medication. supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to begin healing your body