While the term “metabolic syndrome” often circulates the health and fitness space, many are puzzled by what it is.

Even fewer know its symptoms, how doctors diagnose it, what causes it, and how you can treat or prevent it. 

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn evidence-based answers to all the above and more. 

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of health issues such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Although adopting appropriate lifestyle behaviors can effectively manage or prevent metabolic syndrome, it remains prevalent, affecting approximately 24% of men and 22% of women in the U.S.

Metabolic Syndrome Criteria

To meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome, you have to have at least three of these conditions:

  • Abdominal Obesity: Having a large waistline, often described as an “apple-shaped” body, indicates excess fat in the abdominal area, which can be more harmful than fat stored elsewhere.
  • High Blood Pressure: Persistently elevated blood pressure can stress the heart and damage the arteries, raising the risk of heart-related issues.
  • Elevated Blood Sugar: Consistently high blood sugar levels can cause vessel damage and increase the risk of diabetes.
  • Increased Triglycerides: High levels of these fats in your blood can contribute to harmful cholesterol buildup, heightening heart disease risk.
  • Low HDL Cholesterol: HDL (“good”) cholesterol helps clear arteries. Low levels can allow the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol to accumulate.

Find the Perfect Supplements for You in Just 60 Seconds

You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.

Take the Quiz

What Are Metabolic Syndrome’s Symptoms?

Metabolic syndrome manifests through a variety of symptoms.

Some of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome are easier to spot than others:

  • Waist Size: One of the clearer signs is an enlarged waistline. It’s the kind of symptom you or your doctor can easily see.
  • Subtle Indicators: Some aspects of metabolic syndrome come with no noticeable symptoms. For instance, you might have high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, or a drop in HDL cholesterol without any distinct signs.
  • High Blood Sugar: If your blood sugar levels rise, you could experience blurred vision, frequent thirst, an increased need to urinate, or fatigue. 

Routine health check-ups are essential. While you can feel or see some symptoms of metabolic syndrome, you might only detect others through regular medical screenings and blood tests.

How Is Metabolic Syndrome Diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider suspects you have metabolic syndrome, they will perform the following tests:

  • Waist circumference: A measurement of 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women is considered a risk factor.
  • Blood Pressure: A consistent reading of 130/85 mmHg or higher may signal high blood pressure, indicating you may be at risk.
  • Blood Sugar: A fasting blood sugar level between 70 and 99 mg/dL is healthy. Levels of 100-to-125 mg/dL suggest high blood sugar or prediabetes, while 126 mg/dL or higher could mean diabetes. 
  • Cholesterol: Healthy HDL levels start at 60 mg/dL and above. Levels below 50 mg/dL for women and 40 mg/dL for men could signify low HDL cholesterol, a factor of metabolic syndrome.
  • Triglycerides: For adults, triglyceride levels should ideally be under 150 mg/dL. Levels persistently above this threshold are indicative of high blood triglycerides.

While this guide pertains mainly to adults, children can also get a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome. For them, specific benchmarks and measurements will be determined by their healthcare provider.

Find the Best Diet for You in Just 60 Seconds

How many calories should you eat? What about "macros?" What foods should you eat? Take our 60-second quiz to get science-based answers to these questions and more.

Take the Quiz

What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?

While lifestyle habits affecting your risk of developing metabolic syndrome are under your control, other factors like age and family history are unavoidable.

Modifiable Risk Factors

  • Being overweight or obese: Having excess body fat is the main cause of metabolic syndrome.
  • Physical inactivity: Lack of regular exercise can lead to weight gain and poor cardiometabolic health.
  • Poor dietary choices and overeating: Consuming high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods contributes to weight gain and metabolic issues.
  • Inadequate quality sleep: Consistently poor sleep can disrupt metabolic processes and hormone levels.
  • Smoking and alcohol: Both can harm your heart and liver, increasing metabolic syndrome risks.
  • Shift work: Irregular work hours can disrupt the body’s internal clock, leading to metabolic irregularities.

Unmodifiable Risk Factors

  • Age: As you age, your risk escalates.
  • Genetics: Your genetic makeup can influence weight and insulin response. A family history of diabetes or metabolic syndrome may elevate your risk.
  • Underlying conditions: For example, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) causes hormone imbalances that might induce several metabolic syndrome indicators.
  • Medications: Drugs for allergies, bipolar disorder, depression, HIV, and schizophrenia can contribute to metabolic syndrome.
  • Sex differences: Post-menopause, women face a higher risk due to hormonal changes.

Metabolic Syndrome Treatments and Prevention Strategies

Lifestyle Strategies

Changing your lifestyle using the strategies below can help you control or prevent metabolic syndrome.

  • Diet: Eat a diet that’s rich in nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils, and low in processed foods, trans- and saturated fats, and high-sugar drinks.
  • Body Weight: Shedding excess fat decreases your odds of developing most metabolic syndrome risk factors, including type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and health disease. 
  • Exercise: Routine exercise helps you manage several heart disease risk factors. Aim for 2-to-3 strength training workouts and 1-to-3 hours of low-to-moderate-intensity cardio weekly.
  • Stress: Managing stress levels and learning to relax improves your emotional and physical health.  
  • Smoking: Quitting smoking or vaping greatly improves many aspects of your health, including cardiometabolic health.
  • Sleep: Consistent lack of restorative sleep can lead to significant health complications. Aim for 7-to-9 hours of sleep nightly.

Medicinal Strategies

If lifestyle modifications aren’t sufficient, your doctor may prescribe medications to help treat metabolic syndrome. Typically, you combine these medications with healthy lifestyle habits.

  • Weight Loss Medications: These can aid weight loss by reducing your appetite or decreasing the amount of fat your body derives from food.
  • Blood Pressure Medications: Options include ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, diuretics, and beta blockers.
  • Lipid-Regulating Medications: Drugs like statins and niacin effectively reduce triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels while enhancing HDL cholesterol. Some individuals might need a combination of these medications.
  • Blood Sugar Management Medications: Thiazolidinediones can enhance insulin sensitivity. However, they may also lead to liver issues, anemia, heart conditions, or erratic blood sugar levels.