Metabolic Syndrome (Syndrome X)  

I've worked closely with a great many people who have the metabolic syndrome; what follows is a detailed, practical description of what I see helping most consistently & quickly!

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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 metabolic syndrome will have at least a few of the following signs:

  • excess weight around the waist-line (apples rather than pears)
  • a tendency to high blood pressure
  • lower levels of good cholesterol and higher levels of bad cholesterol & triglycerides
  • a tendency to inflammation in their muscles and joints
  • a sense of mental fogginess &/or a low mood,

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The sugar habit

The chemistry of metabolic syndrome is complex but the heart of the problem with it is when our body produces higher than usual levels of insulin in an attempt to bring down levels of blood sugar that have become harmfully high. Metabolic syndrome is the precursor of diabetes, it may take many years to get there but metabolic syndrome will eventually develop into diabetes if it is not effectively treated and cured.

What we can see is that once a person starts eating significant amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods in their diet then they can soon fall prey to a kind of addictive cycle whereby 'what goes up must come down'

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Who gets the metabolic syndrome?

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

Metabolic syndrome is greatly influenced by genes and can accurately be called a genetic condition although it will only come into being if the diet is sufficiently weighted with high-carbohydrate foods. In some cases it is the eating patterns in early childhood that determine how severely or how quickly the metabolic syndrome develops when the person gets older but in any case a person who has the genetic disposition to get the metabolic syndrome will not be able to eat a diet overly rich in carbohydrates without some symptoms eventually starting to show up.

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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. In practice I have found that one of the most pressing problems for many of my patients with the metabolic syndrome is simply low energy and/or a low mood. Another one of the most common features of the metabolic syndrome is being unable to lose weight despite doing all the 'right things'. People who have metabolic syndrome are usually (but not always) overweight, especially around the abdomen and when you see that 'apple' shape along with things like inflammation, raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol etc. then you must question whether it is the metabolic syndrome that is running the show.

Another common finding is that people with metabolic syndrome get a congested liver which may have been picked up in routine blood tests in the form of slightly raised liver enzymes or in raised cholesterol levels (the liver makes the great majority of cholesterol in our bodies.) In my own practice I closely analyse the blood of my patients and, in those who clearly have the metabolic syndrome, it is common to see one or more sure signs of an unhappy liver namely: a) sticky blood, b) debris in the plasma and c) clusters of thread-like fibrin 'spicules'.

Many women have hormonal problems that are affected by the metabolic syndrome. The tendency to develop growths such as fibroids, breast lumps, skin tags etc. is strongly associated to the metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is largely caused by it.

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How to cure the metabolic syndrome

You can cure the metabolic syndrome but you can't stop curing it! This is a genetically determined condition; you have it or you don't, however, if you take 3 key steps and keep taking them then you can effectively cure it; this is how:

Reduce carbohydrates & sugars

The most important part of the cure is that you have to reduce, sometimes quite strictly, the carbohydrates & sugars in your diet. The worse you are in your health or your weight then the more strictly you have to avoid carbohydrates & sugars. For many people that means going back to a kind of 'hunter-gatherer' diet; at least until they get better.

What most people don't realise is that most of the carbohydrates & sugars they eat are hidden in seemingly healthy foods, for example bread, pasta, flour, cereals, grains, rice, potatoes and bananas. These are not thought of as unhealthy foods, and for many people they aren't, but they are all high-carbohydrate foods and if you have the metabolic syndrome then too much sugar in any form will eventually cause you harm. Take a quick look at this picture here to see what I am saying about hidden sugars in foods. You should study the food pyramid shown below to get a visual sense of the foods you need to eat plenty of as well as the ones you need to minimise.

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Increase proteins & fats

Just as important as reducing the carbohydrates & sugars in your diet is that you must increase your intake of proteins and fats. Foods that are rich in protein and fat include things like nuts, seeds, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy products. You can and should eat these foods freely when 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 the healthy eating equals a low-fat high carbohydrate diet. Whilst this does suit some people, if you have the metabolic syndrome then nothing could be further from the truth!

Eat foods that are rich in protein and fats freely and often and you will a) reduce your cravings for carbohydrates and so therefore need to eat less overall and b) you will improve your metabolism and so increase your overall energy and well-being.

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Do some exercise

Exercise plays a key role in both preventing and treating metabolic syndrome. When you exercise you make your cells more sensitive and more responsive to insulin for at least 8 hours. In the past, children who had the genes for the metabolic syndrome could eat lots of high carbohydrate foods without getting obese just because they were so active but we are seeing a rapid change in this area with the current generation.

Exercise is an important part of the cure for the metabolic syndrome but many people come from a starting point where they are either too big, or too sore from excess inflammation, to exercise without an elevated risk of injury. If this is the case for you then you still have to get moving but go for one of the most gentle of exercises; swimming, cycling or walking. As you get healthier and lose weight the ability and the desire to exercise usually increases exponentially.

Remember that this is a problem that can be cured but that you can't stop needing to cure it! Sustainable exercise is the key to success with the metabolic syndrome so a) start by doing whatever you find the most enjoyable or the least unpleasant and b) if you can do tomorrow what you did today, without any undue pain or suffering, then you know you haven't overdone it and will be able to keep it up!

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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 is a strong case to go the next level with all of the above steps which is to get into ketosis. This process of getting into and measuring ketosis is described in practical detail in its own page here.

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Medicines that may help

People can eventually cure themselves from the metabolic syndrome with diet and exercise alone but, by the time they come to see me, my patients usually have one or more typical health problems and we can be sure that certain herbal medicines will greatly help the healing process along.

Side Note to the Reader:
The medicines discussed here should the strongest, highest quality extracts or tinctures you can get so there may be a great deal of benefit to you going to some trouble to find a good herbalist to a) obtain the best quality herbs and b) consult with for your general health as well as the metabolic syndrome. I have a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here.

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Cleansing

Cleansing can be the key strategy when the person has such signs 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. Cleansing is given great importance in all the old traditions of medicine and at some point you might like to read a general article on the subject in an article called 'what is detoxification' here. There are several key herbs that may be of much help to you in this area.

St Mary's thistle

I think that St Mary's thistle is the one herb I could give to anyone with the metabolic syndrome. In some ways it is the safest of all the liver herbs but that doesn't mean it is mild in its effects. As modern science has proven beyond any possible doubt, St Mary's helps to heal a damaged liver and, at the same time, helps the liver to function better. Please note that, like all drugs, natural or otherwise, the correct dose is absolutely essential to getting the right result and this is not a medicine to be shy about using in confident amounts. I discuss all this in practical depth in my article on St Mary's here.


Silybum marianum (St Mary's thistle)

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Juniper and Celandine

In my view Juniper berries (a detailed article on it here) are the most potent of all herbs for cleansing the kidneys and likewise Celandine (more on it here) is the strongest herb for activating and cleansing the liver. I make a further comment down the page about trying to get your herbs from an experienced herbalist but I realise that this will simply not be an option for some people and, especially in those cases, I still recommend the careful use of these two potent herbs with a method that has been seen to be very effective and economic - it is described in detail here.

Plantago husks

I do not use these for everyone by any means but a) if a person has particularly bad cholesterol and b) if they really struggle with eating too much they can be of great help. Drinking a plant fibre that rapidly thickens if you take too long to get it down is not going to be everyone's thing but there is no doubt in both the scientific literature and in my own experience that it can help if taken regularly, more here.

Heart-help

This is where the metabolic syndrome can do the greatest harm and focusing on heart herbs and heart-health can be critical when there are such issues as high blood pressure, poor circulation, shortness of breath or a low level of tolerance to exercise.

Hawthorn

As soon as the heart is involved I think it is imperative to use what I believe is the single most important herb for heart health which is namely Hawthorn. I have great faith in the ability of Hawthorn to help prevent catastrophic events related to the heart and in a very real sense I believe that for many of my patients its daily use gives us time to deal with the deeper causes and correct their weight and diet etc. Basically it keeps the person safe in the process of them doing their work to get well!
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 (much more about it here)

If you know you have hypertension and you need to especially focus on this area then read my detailed article about high blood pressure here. If you have problems with your heart rhythm (arrhythmia or palpitations) then there are also some very effective strategies to help these problems described here.


Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn leaf & berry)

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Energy Medicine

Herbs for energy are the main ones to work with when the person has such issues as low energy, brain-fog or a low mood. In my own view, and that of a great many others in this work, the two top energy tonics in the natural world are Panax Ginseng and Withania somnifera.

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. Withania is equally as highly regarded in the great Ayurvedic system of the Indian sub-continent and likewise has a tremendous history of use for all kinds of problems where increasing a person's vital energy is understood to be the key to their healing. If you will use either or both of these herbs then I certainly encourage you to learn a lot more about them; I write about Panax Ginseng in much more detail here and Withania root here.

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St John's wort

Panax Ginseng and Withania may be my favourite energy tonics but they are by no means the only herbs I use when people are tired and run down and in practice I will typically combine a handful of herbs together for my patient to take each day for as long as their support is required. For example, much more than the natural 'anti-depressant' it has been somewhat marketed to be, I also have a tremendous respect for the ability of St John's wort to nourish an exhausted nervous system and lift the metabolism; you can learn a lot more about it here.


Hypericum perforatum (St John's wort)

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Questions & Answers

Curing the metabolic syndrome will drammatically improve a person's health and well-being, but the process may not be a quick or easy one! Knowing how challenging a change this can be the following information endeavours to cover the main areas that pose difficulties in a question and answer format:

How strict do I need to be with avoiding carbohydrates?

I think 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 a) how hard it is for them to do the work and b) how fast they get results and how major those results tend to be. 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 almost always have a huge improvement in energy and well-being that makes it all seem incredibly worth it! That said, for a person who was not especially overweight or who only had some mild health issues, I would not be nearly so strict and a diet that merely cut refined carbohydrates down rather than completely out can still have them doing very well without having to go to any extremes. The only person who knows how they truly feel is themself, you must measure your own answer to the 'how strict' question by what you know and truly feel about your weight &/or your health.

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

In a nutshell, yes it is and I very much encourage my patients to freely 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 very important that you find the kinds of recipes you really like!

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How do I deal with sugar cravings?

The sugar cravings will definitely pass with time, so long as you don't feed them! You should never underestimate how powerful the addictiveness of sugar can be. I have met many very intelligent and 'together' people who have confessed to me how out of control they can get when they start eating a high sugar food and how they can maintain discipline in every other part of their lives but this one. If you are going to do this then one of the first things you have to do is to get rid of all the high carbohydrate snacks, biscuits, lollies, cakes, candies and any other sugary temptations. Get them out of the house and out of your reach as much as you possibly can. Sugar is super addictive, you wouldn't leave booze or cigarettes lying in reach of a person trying to get out of their clutches and you shouldn't think of this as any less important, or difficult!

The second thing is a rather paradoxical answer to offer for this problem but I have had a lot of immediate success with this approach so I encourage you to be open to trying it yourself. The technique 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, given you are craving the opposite taste of sweetness, you might hardly believe it could help but I think you would simply have to try it for yourself to see what it can do, it's quite remarkable; more
practical detail on how to prepare it and take it 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 or spinach. 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. Protein foods are typically higher in fat but this is not what causes heart disease and high cholesterol etc. for anyone who would like to read more on this subject I have copied a frank article from a US heart-surgeon 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 fall into 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 and 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 or two 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 have to be totally avoided.
Herbal teas and simple water are great and all you have to do is drink them regularly to grow to like them.

Alcohol

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

Keep hydrated

Especially in the first few weeks of making this radical 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. is able to 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. 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 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 you are doing it right is that you will feel like you are eating like a King or Queen. It won't happen right away but you'll get there if you keep working on it!

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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 as well as your metabolism. Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences and, to demonstrate how it works in this area, if you are a hot & dry constitution (an Eagle) and you have the metabolic syndrome then you may not have the typical apple shape or even show much in the way of raised cholesterol so we have to very careful to catch you early as you can rapidly develop full blown diabetes if things are left unchecked! If you are the cool & dry constitution (an Elephant/Butterfly) then you are the least likely of the different types to get the metabolic syndrome but it can still happen and when it does it most commonly shows up from a related hormonal disorder. If you are a hot & damp constitution (a Tiger) then you are probably the most prone of all to getting the metabolic syndrome but the good news is that you also respond exceptionally well and quickly to its treatment. Lastly if you are a cool & damp constitution (a Bear) then you can also be very prone to the metabolic syndrome but you tend to develop it very gradually and likewise need a long, slow approach to getting on top of it properly. There is a brief introduction to this great subject 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