It is arguably the number one public health problem in the United States. It affects almost 50 million U.S. adults and a growing number of children and adolescents. It is a major underlying cause of diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, stroke, and elevated lipids.
It goes by many names including Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance and Syndrome X, and the problem is getting bigger as people are getting bigger and wider.
The key disturbance in metabolic syndrome involves insulin. Our cells stop responding normally to the insulin we make in response to food. When that happens, our bodies produce higher levels of insulin to compensate, and those higher levels cause all kinds of mischief: high blood pressure, blocked arteries, inflammation and all its attendant complications. Often, our ability to make insulin can no longer keep up and that is the beginning of Diabetes.
Why does our insulin stop working?
It’s due to a combination of factors, but the main cause seems to be increased abdominal fat (or possibly the toxins in that fat), decreased muscle mass and genetic predisposition. What sets that process in motion is a carbohydrate and sugar laden diet and physical inactivity – a lifestyle that is becoming the norm in contemporary western countries. Convenience foods and fast foods are generally sweeter (high fructose corn syrup) or starchier than traditional diets, and the propaganda against fat consumption has pushed our diet too far towards carbohydrates.
There are a number of ways to determine if you have Metabolic Syndrome. Symptoms may include fatigue after meals, craving sugar, hypoglycemia (irritability or palpitations – relieved by meals), and chronic fungal infections. Physically the main sign is abdominal obesity (apple-shaped body). Laboratory testing can show increased fasting and after meal insulin levels, increased triglycerides and low HDL (“good” cholesterol).
How has the medical establishment responded to this epidemic?
Antihypertensive medicines, statins, bypass and bariatric surgery. In other words, efforts to address the results of insulin resistance but not the insulin problem itself. Only when diabetes develops, does the issue of insulin get addressed (and often with medications that do nothing to address the underlying problem).
So how should one approach Metabolic Syndrome?
Well, since our modern lifestyle got us into this mess, that’s the logical place to start.
There are a number of dietary approaches to insulin resistance, but what they all have in common is the restriction of foods (mostly carbohydrates) that turn into sugar and stimulate insulin production. The glycemic index of the food is a measure of that tendency. These diets range from more extreme versions (Weston Price, Atkins) to more moderate restrictions (Schwarzbein, Zone, South Beach, Mediterranean Diet). Alcohol and trans fats should also be restricted. Whichever diet is followed should generate weight loss in those individuals who are overweight. In addition, the diet should be plentiful in soluble fiber.
Next is Exercise.
Exercise should focus on resistance training such as weights or Nautilus-like circuit training. This is because most of insulin’s work takes place in muscles. There should also be some aerobic exercise to help maintain ideal body weight.
While there are medications that can reduce insulin resistance, there is plentiful research showing the beneficial effects of nutritional agents.
- Bitter melon
- Green tea
- Fish Oil (especially DHA)
- CLA (conjugated Linoleic Acid)
- Lipoic acid
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin D
- Vanadyl Sulfate
It is clear that effective control of metabolic syndrome requires a comprehensive approach with significant lifestyle changes and targeted nutritional agents, but most people will actually feel physically better when the problem is addressed. More importantly, avoiding the consequences of insulin resistance is worth all the effort.