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Syndrome X

Syndrome X – Affecting 20+% of the Population and Becoming the Leading Cause of Death in Developed Nations

Contributed by Dr. Matthew Fisel

The term Syndrome X has become more of a household name over the past few years-and with good reason.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 20 percent of Americans are suffering from Syndrome X, and it is predicted that it will become a leading cause of premature death in developed nations.

Syndrome X is a metabolic disorder that underlies some of the most serious, chronic and costly diseases in the U.S.  Gerald Reaven, MD coined the term in the late 80s, using medical evidence that correlated a constellation of major health risk factors with cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.  These factors became officially known as “metabolic syndrome” by the world health organization in 1998. Anyone with three or more of the following risk factors is classified as having Syndrome X: hypertension, abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and dyslipidemia (high triglycerides and low HDL, or “good” cholesterol).

The cause of syndrome X is unknown, but scientists believe that roughly 50 percent of cases result from genetic variations. The syndrome is also believed to be the result of body weight — particularly the presence of abdominal fat — and fitness level.  High carbohydrate diets (over 60% of total caloric intake) can sometimes be a contributing factor in susceptible individuals.  Other risk factors include high saturated fat diets, low protein diets, low fiber intake, low intake of vegetables, smoking, and high stress.  Whether the cause is genetic or acquired, insulin resistance is typically at the core of Syndrome X.  Overweight or obese people are more prone to the development of insulin resistance, but it is possible to be insulin-resistant and have a normal body weight.

Insulin resistance means that the ability of insulin to dispose of sugar in the blood has been compromised.  As a result, the body reacts by making more insulin, so blood levels of the hormone begin to rise. Insulin gives prime signals to fat cells to store fat. Hence, obesity goes hand in hand with insulin resistance and its excess in many people.  Insulin can also cause an increase in cholesterol production, and it can tell tissues of the body to raise blood pressure. You can now see that obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, all symptoms of Syndrome X, are clearly linked to insulin resistance.

It’s critical that Syndrome X be identified and treated early in the course of the disease, as it can lead to the development of severe health complications.  Population studies strongly suggest the existence of a relationship between the metabolic abnormalities associated with Syndrome X and the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Other health problems that have been linked to Syndrome X include polycystic ovary disease, sleep apnea, and certain hormone-sensitive cancers.

Although there are genetic factors contributing to Syndrome X, the lifestyle factors mentioned above are all modifiable, making Syndrome X potentially preventable in those with a genetic propensity for the disease.  As you can probably guess, one of the best ways to prevent Syndrome X is by exercising.  A recent study done in Finland found that men who exercised more than 3 hours per week decreased their risk of developing Syndrome X by 50%, compared to those who exercised 60 minutes or less.  Agreement on the ideal diet for Syndrome X prevention has been difficult to accomplish, since it needs to be based largely on individualized factors, including age and activity level.  However, most research will agree that a high fiber, low saturated fat diet can improve the insulin response in susceptible individuals.  It’s important to note that restricting all fat is not beneficial, as monounsaturated, Omega 3, and Omega 6 fats may have a significant impact on improving Syndrome X.  While it is difficult to recommend an exact percentage of the diet that should be comprised of carbohydrates and protein, research suggests that lowering the percent of the diet consisting of carbohydrates can reverse insulin resistance.  Of course, the type of carbohydrate, simple vs. complex, along with total caloric intake, should also be taken into consideration.

In addition to lifestyle modification, nutritional and botanical interventions for the treatment of Syndrome X should also be considered.  Nutrients such as lipoic acid, glutathione, CoQ10, magnesium, chromium, and vanadium all appear to have therapeutic potential.  The herb Inula racemosa, along with Gymnema sylvestre, may enhance the body’s response to insulin, reducing the likelihood of insulin resistance.

The bottom line is that Syndrome X is often an avoidable disease, given the proper dietary and lifestyle choices are made.  It’s not too late to find out if you are at risk, and to start making changes that could lead to a longer, healthier life!

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