Doctor Decoded: What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

Having high blood pressure is one of the factors of metabolic syndrome.

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You may not have heard the term metabolic syndrome before, yet it’s very common in the United States. One study from Preventing Chronic Disease journal found that it affected over a third of U.S. adults in 2012. So what is it? And if it's so common, why don't you hear about it more often?

Metabolic Syndrome, Defined

Metabolic syndrome refers to having a collection of risk factors. It’s not technically a disease on its own. It means you have at least three of the following:

  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal obesity (increased weight circumference)
  • High triglycerides
  • Low HDL cholesterol (that’s the “good” kind of cholesterol)

It’s a little unusual to refer to a group of risk factors as a “syndrome.” In fact, some experts argue about whether it’s appropriate to refer to it as a syndrome at all. That’s why you’re unlikely to hear your doctor diagnose you with “metabolic syndrome.” However, this combination of health issues is so common (and detrimental to health) that it seemed appropriate for medical experts to have a name for it.

Why It’s Dangerous

The concern about metabolic syndrome is that it increases a person’s risk of developing:

High blood pressure alone can increase the risk of heart disease. When you add high blood sugar on top of that, it may increase the risk further. That’s because high blood sugar can damage the arteries, causing them to become more inflamed and stiff. That’s one example of why the combination of all these individual risk factors is so dangerous.

Managing Your Risk

Since metabolic syndrome isn’t exactly a disease itself, treating it means treating the individual risk factors. The goal is to reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more.

Depending on your level of risk, your treatment may first start with lifestyle changes. For example, quitting smoking or reducing sodium in your diet could help get your blood pressure under control.

If you don’t see enough improvement from lifestyle changes alone, you may be a candidate for medications. For example, you may benefit from medicines that help improve cholesterol levels, such as statins, or medicines that improve blood pressure, such as ACE inhibitors. Your treatment really depends on which risk factors you’re dealing with.