Avoiding The Hidden Disease

I’d like to talk about a hidden threat to your health that’s routinely overlooked by most mainstream doctors — metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of underlying health disorders that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. As the name suggests, metabolic syndrome is tied to the body’s metabolism and to a condition called insulin resistance. Also formerly known as “Syndrome X,” “Insulin Resistance Syndrome” and a “pre-diabetic condition,” metabolic syndrome is characterized by one or more of the following conditions:

  • Abdominal obesity, also called VAT (visceral adipose tissue). This type of obesity is seen in men and women with an “apple” body shape — meaning body fat is stored around their middle section (e.g., abdomen, chest and surrounding internal organs, such as the heart).
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Hormonal imbalance — men in the lower fourth of measured testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin had a several-fold increased rate of metabolic syndrome according to a 2004 Diabetes Care article.
  • High triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
  • Hypertension.
  • Insulin resistance — determined by measuring high insulin levels in the blood.
  • Glucose intolerance — high blood sugar measured after meals, but not constantly high as in diabetes mellitus.
  • Pro-thrombotic state (e.g., high fibrinogen or plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 in the blood. Also, a propensity for deep vein blood clots).
  • Pro-inflammatory state, measured as elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) blood levels.

It is estimated that as many as one in four American adults over age 30 have metabolic syndrome, of which the vast majority don’t know it. Having just one component of metabolic syndrome puts you at risk for serious illness. And the more components you have, the greater the risks to your health.

The dominant underlying risk factors for metabolic syndrome appear to be abdominal obesity and insulin resistance — both of which are characteristics of Type 2 diabetes. According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC), more than 6 million people in the United States have Type 2 diabetes and do not know it. In order to prevent this deadly disease from wreaking havoc on your life, here’s what you MUST know.

What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is closely linked to your body’s metabolism, and to a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin, a hormone made by your pancreas, helps control the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.

Normally, your digestive system breaks down the foods you eat into glucose, which is used by your cells as fuel. Insulin is vital to help the glucose into your cells, but in people with insulin resistance, the cells won’t respond and the glucose has much difficulty entering. Unfortunately, your body tries to help by producing more and more insulin to help glucose get into your cells. The result is higher than normal levels of insulin in your blood. This leads to diabetes, when your body is unable to make enough insulin to control the blood glucose to within the normal range.

Even slightly elevated glucose levels can still be harmful. This condition is known as “prediabetes.” Increased insulin raises your triglyceride level and other blood fat levels. It also interferes with kidney function, which leads to higher blood pressure. These combined effects of insulin resistance put you at risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other conditions.

Type 2 Diabetes — Are You at Risk?
The following are the most common risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, which can often result when metabolic syndrome is not corrected:

  • Family history of diabetes.
  • Excess body weight.
  • Low blood sugar symptoms of nausea, blurred vision, weakness or moodiness after meals.
  • High triglycerides, an early sign of a high insulin state.
  • Metabolic syndrome (described above).
  • Skin tags (skin that projects from surrounding skin —  commonly found on the eyelids, neck, armpits and groin) have an 80 percent correlation with developing diabetes.
  • Polycystic ovary disease — characterized by obesity, facial hair and fewer than normal menses.
  • Birthing a baby over nine pounds.
  • Race/ethnicity — African Americans, Native Alaskans, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders all have high rates of diabetes.
  • Symptoms of increased urination, excess thirst, recurrent blurred vision or numbness in the toes.
  • Heart disease, hypertension or excess anger/depression.

If you have metabolic syndrome or any of its components, you have the opportunity to make aggressive lifestyle changes that can delay or curb the development of serious diseases —  even Type 2 diabetes. If you do nothing to control your insulin resistance, your glucose levels will continue to increase.

What Your Belly Fat Says About Your Health
The accumulation of belly fat, what we call visceral adipose tissue (VAT), as opposed to generalized subcutaneous (below the skin) fat, has been proven to play a crucial role in promoting heart vessel disease and obesity-related illnesses including hypertension, insulin resistance of Type-2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol and metabolic syndrome.

Over the past 10 years, researchers have intensively studied the function of fat cells (adipocytes). It is now known that these adipocytes of belly fat secrete various bioactive substances that incite inflammation, much like cytokine cells of the immune system fight infection.

However, instead of fighting infection, these adipocytokines fight your normal tissues. The adipocytokine chemicals inside the fat cells of every obese abdomen are a reservoir of ammunition that wages the war of inflammation — the very cause of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The good news is that there are also “good” adipocytokines that are anti-inflammatory. For example, one of the many “good guys” is adiponectin, a collagen-like protein which is notably anti-atherogenic and anti-diabetic. Best of all, you can turn ON the good adipocytokines and turn OFF the bad adipocytokines just by watching what you eat. That’s right, by increasing the amount of nutrient-rich foods and limiting the inflammatory foods (refined sugars, refined oils and junk foods) you consume at each meal, you can prevent serious illness and disease. Furthermore, it’s been proven that as the fat around your middle increases, your body over-secretes bad adipocytokines and under-secretes the good adiponectin. This directly results in laying the foundation for metabolic and circulatory diseases.

Likewise, when you reduce your waist circumference, it improves insulin sensitivity to glucose at the cell membrane receptors. It often only takes a modest weight loss for the person with VAT to substantially improve their metabolic profile. Why? Because when the weight is centered around the abdomen, then this area of fat is where it will come off — thus improving the hip-to-waist ratio. And it is not Body Mass Index that gives the correlation with health and disease, but waist circumference in relation to hip circumference, or waist-to-hip ratio. Optimal health corresponds with a waist-to-hip ratio below 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men.

The Sugar-Coated Truth
Americans consume 150-170 pounds of sugar each year, and our love affair shows no signs of waning, even though we are aware of its harmful effects.

A recent study at the University of California at Davis provided evidence that it is the consumption of fructose-sweetened, but not glucose-sweetened, beverages that can adversely affect sensitivity to the hormone insulin and how the body handles fat, creating the conditions listed earlier related in metabolic syndrome.

Lifestyle changes that can save your life
You can do something about your risk of metabolic syndrome and its complications — diabetes, stroke and heart disease — simply by making some lifestyle changes:

  • Lose weight. Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can reduce insulin levels and blood pressure, and also decrease your risk of diabetes.
  • Exercise. Doctors recommend getting 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, every day.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking cigarettes increases insulin resistance and worsens the health consequences of metabolic syndrome. Talk to your doctor if you need help kicking the cigarette habit.
  • Eat fiber-rich foods. Make sure you include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables in your grocery cart. These items are packed with dietary fiber, which can lower your insulin levels.

I can’t say enough about the importance of whole foods.  A well-rounded diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, poultry, fish and whole grains would do wonders to help decrease sugar consumption and belly fat.  There’s no need to starve yourself if you’re eating the right stuff.

Whether you have one, two or none of the components of metabolic syndrome, the following lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke:

  • Commit to a healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose lean cuts of white meat or fish over red meat. Avoid processed or deep-fried foods. Eliminate table salt and experiment with other herbs and spices.
  • Get moving. Get plenty of regular, moderately strenuous physical activity.

Metabolic syndrome is becoming an epidemic in this country.  It’s important that you take the necessary steps now to avoid its complications. That annoying spare tire could quickly become diabetes and devastate your life. But even more devastating is letting it happen when you can bring yourself to true health.


Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.