Metabolic Syndrome (Syndrome X)  

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Finding a good herbalist

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

What is the metabolic syndrome?

People who have the metabolic syndrome always have at least a few of the following signs:

  • excess weight around the waist-line (i.e. apple-shaped rather than pear-shaped)
  • a tendency to high blood pressure
  • lower levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and higher levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol & triglycerides
  • a tendency to inflammation in the muscles and joints
  • a sense of mental fogginess and/or a tendency to low energy states after starchy food

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The sugar habit

The chemistry of metabolic syndrome is complex but the heart of the problem is when our body produces higher than usual amounts of insulin in an attempt to bring down blood sugar levels that have become dangerously high.

Metabolic syndrome is the precursor of diabetes, it may take many years to get there but the metabolic syndrome often eventually develops into diabetes if it is not effectively treated.

Once a person with the metabolic syndrome starts eating significant amounts of sugar or carbohydrate-rich foods they fall prey to a cycle of sugar addiction which accelerates the problem further.

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Who gets the metabolic syndrome?

The metabolic syndrome is genetically inherited from one or both parents, who in turn inherit it from one or more of their parents, however it will only manifest if the diet is sufficiently high in carbohydrates.

Arguments for why the metabolic syndrome affects so many people are compelling. People in modern society eat a much greater amount of refined foods than at any time in history, by far. Metabolic syndrome and diabetes are literally unheard of in societies that eat an unrefined, ‘primitive’ diet. In evolutionary terms our bodies have simply not had enough time to adapt to these high-sugar containing foods.

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How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?

No one single blood test or symptom shows the metabolic syndrome but it can be confidently diagnosed from a typical pattern of problems.

One of the most pressing problems for many people with the metabolic syndrome is being unable to lose weight despite doing all the 'right things'.

People who have metabolic syndrome are often overweight, especially around the abdomen. When this is combined with signs such as inflammation, raised blood pressure, low levels of good cholesterol, signs of liver stress etc. then you must consider it likely that the metabolic syndrome is the core issue.

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How to cure the metabolic syndrome

The metabolic syndrome is a genetically determined condition; if you have it then you have it for life. However, if you make some fundamental changes, especially in your diet, you can effectively cure it;

Reduce carbohydrates & sugars

The most important part of the cure is that you must significantly reduce the carbohydrates & sugars in your diet. The worse your weight, or your health, the more you have to reduce these foods and, for many people, that means going back to a kind of 'hunter-gatherer' diet; at least until they get better.

Most of the carbohydrates & sugars we eat are hidden in everyday foods, for example bread, pasta, flour, cereals, grains, rice, potatoes and bananas. These are not thought of as unhealthy foods, and for some people they aren't, but they are all high-carbohydrate foods and if you have the metabolic syndrome then excess carbohydrates will cause you harm.

To see how much sugar can be hidden in a common food, look here. The food pyramid below gives a visual summary of which foods to eat plenty of, and which to minimise.

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Increase proteins & fats

Almost as important as reducing carbohydrates & sugars is to increase the intake of proteins and fats with foods such as nuts, seeds, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy products. You should eat plenty of these foods if you have the metabolic syndrome.

For people over a certain age, the idea that you can freely eat such foods is a radical notion because they have been repeatedly told that a healthy diet equals a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet but, if you have the metabolic syndrome, nothing could be further from the truth!

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Exercise

Exercise can play a key role in preventing and treating the metabolic syndrome. When we exercise, we make our cells more responsive to insulin for many hours afterwards.


Exercise is an important part of the cure for the metabolic syndrome but some people have got to a point where they are too big, or too sore from inflammation, to exercise without an elevated risk of injury.

If this is the case, then the person still must get moving, but should do something with very low risk of harm, such as swimming, cycling or walking. As a person gets healthier and loses significant amounts of weight, their fitness and ability to exercise will grow.

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If needed, get into ketosis

If a person with the metabolic syndrome has a significant amount of weight to lose &/or their health is at serious risk, then there may be a case to go to another level to get a major shift; ketosis.

Guidelines on the process of getting into and measuring ketosis are described in detail here.

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Medicines that may help

People can cure themselves from the metabolic syndrome with diet and exercise alone but, especially if there are associated health problems, there are certain herbal medicines that can help the healing process along:

Cleansing

Cleansing can be a key strategy when a person has signs such as high cholesterol, a roll of fat under their rib-cage, a coated tongue, an irritable mood or low motivation, poor appetite in the morning and cravings for sugar in the afternoon and evening. All these are classic indications of a liver that is in need of care and several key herbs to help in this area are mentioned below.

Cleansing is given great importance in all the old traditions of medicine and, when needed, can be something of a transformative process to a person's heath status, more on this subject here

St Mary's thistle

St Mary's thistle is the safest of all the liver herbs but that doesn't mean it is mild in its effects. St Mary's is proven to assist the function of, and help to heal, a damaged liver, more here

Juniper and Celandine

Juniper berries are one of the strongest of all herbs to activate and cleanse the kidneys, more here.

Celandine is certainly one of the most potent of all liver-cleansing herbs, more here.

Ideally, you would get these medicines from a herbalist after consulting with them in person however, there are places and situations when this will just not be possible. In which case, a safe but effective way to use them together is described in detail here


Silybum marianum (St Mary's thistle)

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Heart-help

The metabolic syndrome can do a great deal of harm to the heart and if there are any such signs as; pain or weakness in the heart, high blood pressure, poor circulation or shortness of breath then, as well as treating the cause by changing the diet etc. as described above, keep yourself safe for as long as necessary with the great protector and tonic to the heart, Hawthorn.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn's ability to increase blood flow and strengthen the heart muscle has been extremely well proven by modern science. It can literally be a life saver, more here

Alongside Hawthorn, if you have hypertension and need to focus on this area then read here

If you need help with problems with your heart rhythm, i.e. arrhythmia or palpitations, read here


Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn leaf & berry)

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Energy Medicine

If a person is struggling with issues such as brain-fog or a low mood, then they will get a great deal of support by taking some herbal medicines with a proven track record in boosting energy levels.

Ginseng & Withania

Panax Ginseng is known as the 'Emperor tonic' in Chinese medicine and has been revered for millennia for its ability to restore energy, more about it here

Withania is equally well-regarded in the Ayurvedic system of the Indian sub-continent and is used for all kinds of problems where increasing a person's vital energy is the key goal, more here

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St John's wort

Much more than the natural 'anti-depressant' it has been marketed as, St John's wort can nourish an exhausted nervous system and lift the metabolism, more here


Hypericum perforatum (St John's wort)

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Questions & Answers

Curing the metabolic syndrome will dramatically improve a person's health, but the process to get there may not be a quick or easy one! Knowing how challenging this can be, the following section endeavours to cover the areas that pose the most common difficulties:

How strict do I need to be with avoiding carbohydrates?

The 'how strict' question is one of the most important ones for any person who sets out on this path because their answer will have a huge impact on how hard it is for them to do the work and how fast they get results.

For a person who was not especially overweight or who only had some mild health issues, a diet that merely cut refined carbohydrates down rather than completely out can have them doing well without having to go to any extremes.

With my own patients who have bad health because of the metabolic syndrome I advise them to jump in the deep end and to be very strict indeed. That means to avoid all bread in all forms, no flour of any kind, no rice, no pasta, no potatoes, no bananas and no cereals.

When people do this they typically go through a hard week where they feel like an addict coming off their drug (sugar) and then they nearly always start experiencing some major improvements in their health around that time.

Is this the same as other low-carb diets like Paleo, Atkins etc?

In a nutshell, yes, it is, and I encourage my patients to delve into online and printed resources from any low-carb diet systems to get inspiration for recipes, help with food choices, and potentially also tap into the social support that is available out there from people who have gone through all this themselves.

I don't personally advocate for any one system above another because a) I think people need to find their own right level of 'how-strict' and b) we don't all have the same tastes and, given this needs to be a long-term change, it is vital that you find the kinds of recipes you really like!

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How do I deal with sugar cravings?

You should never underestimate how powerful the addictiveness of sugar can be. You must get rid of all the high carbohydrate snacks, biscuits, lollies, cakes, candies and other sugary temptations out of the house and out of your reach as much as you possibly can. The sugar cravings will pass with time, so long as you don't feed them!

Secondly if, despite your best intentions, you are being defeated by sugar cravings then take this advice, as strange as it will sound, and try it for yourself, because it almost always works. The trick is to use the herb Gentian, possibly mixed with some Ginger, in very small drop-doses whenever you start getting sugar cravings.

Gentian is an intensely bitter herb and, of course you would hardly believe that such a thing could help, but, if needed, you simply must try it for yourself to see what it can do, more here


Gentiana lutea (Gentian)

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What's for breakfast?

Eggs are an ideal breakfast food because they are so rich in protein and so easy to get ready.  Any kind of egg preparation is fine and it is particularly hard to get bored with well-made omelettes including ingredients such as salmon, smoked chicken, mushroom, cheese, snow-peas, greens etc..

With or without eggs it will be very helpful to your blood sugar balance for the whole day to eat some protein at some stage in the morning so also consider things like cheese, nuts and seeds, bacon, low-carb sausages etc.

Of course, these foods are higher in fat but fat is not what causes heart disease and high cholesterol etc. for anyone who needs some more convincing of that, read here

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Which is the easiest meal to get right?

Dinner is the easiest meal to get right with the metabolic syndrome, not in terms of time but in terms of what you can eat because any kind of protein with any kind of vegetable except potato is okay.

Protein; meat, fish, chicken, cheese, nuts, tofu etc. and vegetables form the basis of all great meals from all cultures and this can all be made especially delicious using the many flavours, sauces and spices that are still perfectly okay to eat.

Which is the hardest meal to get right?

Lunch is the hardest meal to get right. This is the time that, unless you have planned ahead, you are going to be tempted by the trap of convenience foods which, with few exceptions are high in refined carbohydrates.

Many people find that the best way to get their lunch right is through their dinner, i.e. making much larger amounts of protein & vegetable dishes than are needed at dinnertime and then putting leftovers into containers that can be stored for lunch. There is no harm in freezing food but it will taste and feel better if you let it thaw naturally and heat it on a stove instead of a microwave.

What can I eat for a snack?

You do not have to feel hungry to successfully treat the metabolic syndrome. There are plenty of options when it comes to snacks including cheeses, nuts and seeds, olives, salami or dried meats, moderate amounts of citrus fruits, grapes, kiwifruits, apples, pears etc.

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Is fruit okay?

Fruit sugars are metabolised more readily than other carbohydrates without needing to make a lot of insulin so you can eat fruit in moderation whilst treating the metabolic syndrome.

All fresh fruits except for bananas are okay to eat (the process of gas-ripening bananas makes them so high in sugars that they raise insulin levels too high). Dried fruits are also okay but very much in moderation, e.g. no more than a few dates or dried apricots in a day.

People who need to lose a lot of weight and turn their metabolic disorder around rapidly may be wise to eat no more than one or two pieces of fruit a day and not to eat dried fruits at all. Most people with the metabolic syndrome will be fine with several pieces of fruit a day and in fact soon find that fruit tastes better than it ever has before because your body is becoming re-sensitised to natural sugars.

Are artificially sweeteners okay?

The short answer is no, because the brain still registers the sweetness even without the sugar and the hormonal imbalances that come with the metabolic syndrome continue to be provoked. In a short while you will find your tastes change and you feel the natural sweetness in food much more intensely.

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What should I drink?

Tea and coffee are completely fine but you will need to lose the teaspoon of sugar habit, at least until you have broken the cycle of the metabolic syndrome and are back in good health. Most people count how much sugar they have in a day by how much they put in their tea of coffee but the reality is that a bowl of pasta contains about 20 times as much sugar as anyone puts in their coffee...

Fruit juices are completely full of sugar and must be totally avoided. Herbal teas and simple water are, of course, ok.

Alcohol

If you want to have an alcohol-containing drink then you must avoid both beer and wine as they are far too high in sugar not to push you back into insulin-resistance. On the other hand, a drink of spirits, such as vodka, scotch, tequila etc, are perfectly acceptable.

Keep hydrated

Especially in the first few weeks of making this kind of change in your diet you are going to do a lot more detoxification than you are used to. One of the most important ways to prevent the kinds of headaches, aches and pains that this can otherwise produce is to keep well hydrated.

Aim for at least 6 cups a day, more if you need it. A good strategy to develop the hydration habit is to put a large glass jug full of water somewhere in your home or office as a visual reminder and measure of how much you have drunk. Adding some lemon or herbs such as lemon balm or mint to the water keeps it fresh and pleasant to drink.

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How will I feel when I start doing all this?

When people start cutting out the sugar in their diet they typically go through a kind of withdrawal process and anyone that goes through this will tell you with conviction that sugars really are addictive. They typically feel strong cravings for bread, pasta, sugar etc. that no amount of cheese, nuts, meat etc. can fulfil. This is normal and not to be worried about; your body is learning how to work with a different kind of fuel and this is always hardest at the beginning.

The best thing to do with a carbohydrate craving is to not feed it! You can certainly eat some protein -- there is no need to go hungry, but you may find that the craving is not about being hungry; rather a weird kind of emptiness that it feels like only sugar will fill up. That's when you can appreciate how addictive these foods are and it will make abundant sense as to why the shopping trolleys of the western world are basically full of sugar in one form or another.

I strongly encourage my patients who have the metabolic syndrome to take time to think about what they are going to eat. You cannot cure the metabolic syndrome by continuing to eat everything you are used to eating minus the bread, flour, biscuits, pasta etc.

It won't be sustainable unless you find new ways to prepare foods that are both delicious and desirable and, in this regard, I think it is essential to eventually start going online to find recipes from websites from people who have worked themselves out of this problem with their own diets and are happy to share what worked for them.

This is not a weight-loss diet; it is a way of life. Especially when you are starting out with this, give yourself plenty of time to think, read, shop and cook.

The way you know that you are doing it right is that you will feel like you are eating like a King or Queen.

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Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here


Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd