Lifestyle Interventions That Help Treat Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome, characterized by abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, is now considered a major health hazard1 and has even been called a “global pandemic.”2 Researchers suggest that an increase in high-calorie, low-fiber fast food, an increase in sedentary lifestyles, and a decrease in physical activity contribute to the rising incidence of metabolic syndrome.1

Patients with metabolic syndrome are five times more likely to develop diabetes.3 In fact, data show that the incidence of metabolic syndrome often parallels the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes.1 Between 1988-2010, the average BMI in the US increased by 0.37% per year in both men and women.1 CDC data published in 2017 found that about 30.2 million adults aged 18 years and older (12.2% of US adults) had type 2 diabetes; the prevalence of prediabetes or metabolic syndrome was about three times more—suggesting that about one third of US adults have metabolic syndrome.1

But metabolic syndrome isn’t only affected by diet and exercise; stress levels, economics, and the health of the microbiota can also play a part. A 2018 cross-sectional analysis suggests that the psychosocial stressors associated with shift work may contribute to higher metabolic syndrome incidence.4 The Whitehall II study conducted on 10,308 British civil service men and women who were followed for an average of 14 years revealed that employees under chronic work-related stress had an odds ratio of 2.25 for developing cardiometabolic syndrome compared to those without work-related stress.2 Among women, depressive symptoms, stressful life events, intense anger, and feeling tense increase the likelihood of developing cardiometabolic syndrome.2 A 2018 study suggests that the epidemic of metabolic syndrome is also associated with economic development, lifestyle transition, and dysbiosis of gut microbiota.5

Research suggests that early intervention can help prevent metabolic syndrome. Before ordering lab tests, screening for metabolic syndrome can be as simple as conducting a brief physical exam for visceral adiposity and acanthosis nigricans.6,7,8 Specifically, a simple waist-to-hip ratio may indicate an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other complications.9,10

Dietary interventions have also been shown to be effective in helping to prevent or control metabolic syndrome. 2018 epidemiologic evidence suggests that novel trimethylated (betainized) compounds associated with glucose metabolism in humans are associated with diets rich in whole grains, and they improve insulin resistance and insulin secretion.11 Data from a cross-sectional analysis in adults suggests that a higher quality diet, assessed using the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) dietary quality score, is associated with improved adiposity measures and a less insulin-resistant, proinflammatory, pro-thrombotic, and pro-atherogenic cardiometabolic profile, which may impact central obesity and metabolic syndrome risk.12

Phagocyte-derived myeloperoxidase (MPO) and proinflammatory HDL are associated with metabolic syndrome and increased cardiovascular disease risk. Therapeutic lifestyle changes, such as adoption of a Mediterranean diet and increased exercise, may decrease this risk.13 A 2018 study suggests that these therapeutic lifestyle changes improve HDL function by inhibiting MPO-mediated oxidative stress even before appreciable changes in HDL levels.13 Evidence also suggests that aerobic exercise, dynamic resistance exercise, and isometric exercises can lower blood pressure and improve glycemic control.14

What other lifestyle modifications can help patients who struggle with metabolic syndrome? IFM’s Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP) program provides a framework for integrating each patient’s history, physical exam findings, genetics, and lifestyle into an effective, individualized treatment plan that addresses the causes of metabolic dysfunction. Learn more about this week-long introduction to Functional Medicine.

Register for Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP)


  1. Saklayen MG. The global epidemic of the metabolic syndrome. Curr Hypertens Rep. 2018;20(2):12. doi:10.1007/s11906-018-0812-z.
  2. Kelli HM, Kassas I, Lattouf OM. Cardio metabolic syndrome: a global epidemic. J Diabetes Metab. 2015;6(3):1-14. doi:10.4172/2155-6156.1000513.
  3. Wilson PW, D’Agostino RB, Parise H, Sullivan L, Meigs JB. Metabolic syndrome as a precursor of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Circulation. 2005;112(20):3066-3072. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.105.539528.
  4. Santos AE, Araújo LF, Griep RH, et al. Shift work, job strain, and metabolic syndrome: cross-sectional analysis of ELSA-Brasil [published online September 26, 2018]. Am J Ind Med. doi:10.1002/ajim.22910.
  5. He Y, Wu W, Wu S, et al. Linking gut microbiota, metabolic syndrome and economic status based on a population-level analysis. Microbiome. 2018;6(1):172. doi:10.1186/s40168-018-0557-6.
  6. Shuster A, Patlas M, Pinthus JH, Mourtzakis M. The clinical importance of visceral adiposity: a critical review of methods for visceral adipose tissue analysis. Br J Radiol. 2012;85(1009):1-10. doi:10.1259/bjr/38447238.
  7. Hurt L, Pinto CD, Watson J, Grant M, Gielner J; CDC. Diagnosis and screening for obesity-related conditions among children and teens receiving Medicaid—Maryland, 2005-2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014;63(14):305-308.
  8. Hesse MB, Young G, Murray RD. Evaluating health risk using a continuous metabolic syndrome score in obese children. J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2016;29(4):451-458. doi:10.1515/jpem-2015-0271.
  9. Löffler-Wirth H, Willscher E, Ahnert P, et al. Novel anthropometry based on 3D-bodyscans applied to a large population based cohort. PLoS One. 2016;11(7):e0159887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159887.
  10. Apple and pear body shapes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed September 27, 2018.
  11. Kärkkäinen O, Lankinen MA, Vitale M, et al. Diets rich in whole grains increase betainized compounds associated with glucose metabolism [published online September 25, 2018]. Am J Clin Nutr. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy169.
  12. Phillips CM, Harrington JM, Perry IJ. Relationship between dietary quality, determined by DASH score, and cardiometabolic health biomarkers: a cross-sectional analysis in adults [published online September 1, 2018]. Clin Nutr. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2018.08.028.
  13. Mathew AV, Li L, Byun J, et al. Therapeutic lifestyle changes improve HDL function by inhibiting myeloperoxidase-mediated oxidation in patients with metabolic syndrome [published online September 10, 2018]. Diabetes Care. doi:10.2337/dc18-0049.
  14. Lackland DT, Voeks JH. Metabolic syndrome and hypertension: regular exercise as part of lifestyle management. Curr Hypertens Rep. 2014;16(11):492. doi:10.1007/s11906-014-0492-2.

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