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Understanding Metabolic Syndrome and Your Health

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it’s easy to overlook the subtle signs our bodies send us. Feeling more tired lately, noticing a bit of extra belly fat or occasional spikes in your blood pressure may go unnoticed. But these signs could point to something bigger – something called metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a health problem that many people don’t know about, but about 1 in 3 adults in the United States have it. It messes with your health in ways you may not notice at first. And here’s the kicker – it puts you at risk for our nation’s number one killer: heart disease

Read on to understand more as we break down the mystery of metabolic syndrome, including your potential risk factors and lifestyle changes you can make to stay healthy.  

What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance syndrome, is not a single health issue but a collection of conditions. 

“Metabolic syndrome is a combination of findings in persons who are at increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes,” said Christian Nasr, MD, an endocrinologist with Banner – University Medicine. 

To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you must have at least three of the following five markers:

  • Abdominal obesity: This means having extra weight around your belly or waist, resulting in a body shape that resembles an apple. A waist circumference of more than 35 inches in women and more than 40 inches in men are more at risk.
  • Elevated blood pressure: Blood pressure at or above 130/85 mmHg puts you at higher risk.  
  • High blood sugar: A fasting glucose level equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL
  • High triglycerides (a fat in the blood): Equal or greater than 150 mg/dL
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol: Below 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women

What causes metabolic syndrome?

“The causes of metabolic syndrome are complex, and there seems to be a genetic link,” Dr. Nasr said. “Being overweight or obese and physically inactive adds to your risk.”

Metabolic syndrome is also linked to insulin resistance. This happens when your body’s cells don’t respond normally to insulin, a hormone that helps control blood sugar. Insulin resistance can lead to high blood sugar levels.

Other factors that can increase your chances of having metabolic syndrome include:

  • Age: The risk of metabolic syndrome increases with age, although it can affect people of any age.
  • Ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans may have a higher risk. 
  • Hormonal changes: Hormonal imbalances (such as those related to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and hormonal changes (such as menopause) may put people at higher risk.
  • Smoking: Smoking has been linked to insulin resistance and an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
  • Unhealthy diet: A diet high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats can contribute to obesity, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
  • Other medical conditions: Your risk is higher if you have certain conditions such as fatty liver, chronic kidney disease and certain autoimmune diseases.

Why is metabolic syndrome dangerous?

If left untreated, metabolic syndrome can lead to several health dangers like:

  • Heart disease and heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Some forms of cancer, like colon cancer and breast cancer
  • Organ damage, such as in the pancreas, liver and kidneys
  • Sleep apnea
  • Pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes
  • Thinking and memory issues
  • Premature death

"It is recommended that if you are at risk for metabolic syndrome, you be screened for it,” Dr. Nasr said. “For example, if you have diabetes or prediabetes, are overweight, have high blood pressure, high triglycerides or low HDL, you should have the other markers looked at.”

What are the treatments for metabolic syndrome?

The good news is that it’s possible to improve your condition or reverse metabolic syndrome with lifestyle changes and medications. The sooner you can make changes, the better.

“The main goals of treating metabolic syndrome are to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, such as coronary disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease,” Dr. Nasr said. “Each marker increases the risk for heart disease, so treating all of them is very important to reduce your risk.”

Lifestyle changes
  • Regular exercise: Engage in regular physical activity that you enjoy – either aerobic, resistance training or a combination will help. At least 30 minutes a day is recommended.
  • Healthy diet: Focus on a balanced and nutritious diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Limit saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt intake and added sugars. “The Mediterranean diet appears to produce the best outcomes,” Dr. Nasr said. “Other diets that focus on blood pressure (like the DASH diet) or risk of diabetes (like the low-carb Whole30 diet) will potentially have some benefit.”
  • Weight management: Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important. Losing even a small amount of weight can greatly impact your health. Research shows that losing 5% to 7% of your body weight and adding 150 minutes of exercise per week can cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 58%.
  • Quit smoking: Quitting smoking can lower your risk for heart disease.
  • Regular well-checks: “An at-risk person should have regular annual physicals with their health care provider to identify markers for metabolic syndrome and address them,” Dr. Nasr said.
Medications and surgery

If you cannot make enough difference with lifestyle changes, you may consider medications or bariatric (weight loss) surgery. Your provider may also prescribe medicine to control blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and other symptoms.  

Weight loss surgery helps with metabolic syndrome by helping people lose weight and improving how their body handles sugar. It often helps with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well. 


Metabolic syndrome is not a single health issue but a collection of conditions that can raise your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. By paying attention to the risk factors and making some lifestyle changes, like eating well and moving more, you can help give your metabolism a boost.

If you’re worried about metabolic syndrome, talk to your health care provider or a Banner Health provider who can help. To learn more about weight loss surgery attend out free online seminar led by our experienced bariatric surgeons. Your well-being is worth the effort, and small changes can set you on the path to feeling good and staying healthy.

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