Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 22, 2021

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

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It’s not a single disease, but a group of related health problems: too much belly fat, high triglycerides, cholesterol trouble, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. When you have at least three of these issues, your chances for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke are higher than they’d be with any of those health problems on their own.

Large Waistline

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When you’re larger around the middle -- you have an apple or pear shape to your body -- that can lead to metabolic syndrome. In general, this means a waist size of 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men, but your doctor can tell you if that rule applies to you. It’s not just the fat itself that’s the problem, it’s the location: belly fat is more dangerous for heart disease and other conditions.

High Triglycerides

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It’s a type of fat in the blood that your body makes from extra calories. If you can’t keep your level below 150 mg/dL, you could be more likely to get metabolic syndrome. You can take medicine to lower your triglyceride levels, but the best way is to lose weight, exercise, and cut back on calories.

Too Little HDL Cholesterol

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HDL is “good” cholesterol that may help remove LDL, the “bad” kind, from your arteries. If your HDL is less than 50 mg/dL for a woman, or less than 40 mg/dL for a man, that can set you up for metabolic syndrome. You may be able to raise your HDL levels with weight loss, a better diet, and other lifestyle changes.

High Fasting Blood Sugar

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When you don’t eat for 8 hours or so, your body begins to run out of blood sugar from food and it starts to break down the stored form. Your body uses the hormone insulin to keep levels in a healthy range. But sometimes it can’t manage this balancing act and your “fasting” blood sugar gets too high. Anything over 100 mg/dL could lead to metabolic syndrome.

High Blood Pressure

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Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your arteries as your heart pumps and rests. If yours is higher than 130/85, you could get metabolic syndrome. But you may be able to cut your numbers naturally if you lose just 5% of your body weight. Exercise, quitting smoking, and a healthy, low-salt diet can also help.

What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?

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You’re more likely to get it as you get older, and you also may have some genes that raise your odds. There’s not much you can do about that. But you can make other changes to prevent the condition and lower the chances you’ll get coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and type 2 diabetes.

Stay Active

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People who don’t get enough physical activity are more likely to get metabolic syndrome. You should get about 30 minutes of exercise a day, at least 5 days a week. But don’t stop there. The more you get up and move around throughout the day, the better your health will be. Even 10 minutes of exercise at a time can make a big difference.

Watch Your Weight

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Too much body fat is another possible cause of metabolic syndrome. It’s strongly linked to all of the health problems that make up the condition. It also can make your body stop responding to insulin, the hormone that keeps blood sugar levels stable. That’s called insulin resistance, and it’s another common reason that people get metabolic syndrome.

Other Possible Causes

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 Inflammation throughout the body and having blood that clots too easily may be conditions of metabolic syndrome or may be factors in its development. Other conditions that may play a role are:

  • A fatty liver: Too many triglycerides and other fats in the liver
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome: When women get cysts on their ovaries
  • Gallstones: Hard pieces made from digestive fluid in the gallbladder
  • Sleep apnea: You stop breathing over and over during sleep, which means you don’t get enough oxygen

Change Your Habits

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This is the first thing your doctor will suggest to treat metabolic syndrome. Cut back on sugar, salt, saturated fat, and processed foods, and eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Get more exercise. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about quitting. All of these habits can help you lower your blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides, as well as raise your good cholesterol and trim your waistline -- the five things that add up to metabolic syndrome.

Medication May Help

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If lifestyle changes don’t control your metabolic syndrome, your doctor may suggest medicine. It won’t replace lifestyle changes, but it can help. You may get a drug called a statin to lower your cholesterol. Other medicines may:

  • Lower your chance of a heart attack
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Prevent blood clots
  • Fight coronary heart disease
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