What is metabolic syndrome and why is it so dangerous?

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What is metabolic syndrome and why is it so dangerous?

I’m a little overweight and am becoming concerned about metabolic syndrome. Can acupuncture help?

As a risk factor for type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, metabolic syndrome is a serious concern. However, being overweight is not, in itself, an indicator of the disease. The syndrome includes a cluster of symptoms—primarily impaired glucose tolerance or insulin resistance—along with high blood pressure, decreased HDL cholesterol (the good kind), elevated triglycerides, and excess weight specifically around the waist.

Of those symptoms, insulin resistance plays an especially key role in the syndrome. Insulin is released by the pancreas during digestion and signals cell walls to open so that glucose can be taken in. If a cell senses too much insulin, or the constant presence of it, the cell will “turn off” to the insulin signal. It, in effect, “resists” it (hence, the term insulin resistance). It then takes more and more insulin to keep blood-glucose levels normal.

Down the road, hyperglycemia and type-2 diabetes can result. Along with the increased risk for diabetes, chronically high levels of insulin trigger a cascade of other problems as well. According to Chinese medicine, excess insulin creates sticky blood, which leads to blood stagnation, a “cause of 100 diseases,” including negative effects on the heart and circulatory system, the kidneys, and the brain. Secondly, elevated insulin levels contribute to obesity, because as a fat-storage hormone, insulin hampers the ability to burn fat. It also increases appetite and sugar cravings.

Third when insulin levels remain chronically high, blood vessel walls become damaged through inflammation. As the blood vessel repairs the effects of inflammation, it binds low-density lipids and cholesterol into the vessel walls, which leads to hardening of the arteries, affecting the heart, kidney, and brain. Insulin resistance is likely a key cause of heart disease and other age-related degenerative diseases.

How does this condition develop? First, by eating too many simple carbohydrates—refined bread, pasta, potatoes, and sweets—over a long period. The simple sugars spike insulin and, when regularly eaten in excess, create the environment for chronic high blood-insulin. The traditional Chinese diet of rice, vegetables, animal proteins, nuts, soy products, and fruit both treats and prevents metabolic syndrome by modulating the insulin response.

Chinese medicine also recommends reducing or eliminating wheat products, dairy, and most sweets. If you need to lose weight, though, eliminate rice, breads, pasta, and desserts completely to allow the body to convert stored fats into useable glucose.

A second contributing factor to metabolic syndrome is an elevated level of adrenal cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn worsens regulation of blood sugar. As the adrenals become exhausted, hypoglycemia results. Poor sugar regulation places additional stress on the adrenals, creating a vicious cycle.

Of course, stress reduction is key. If you are concerned about metabolic syndrome, I recommend living a calm and balanced lifestyle and integrating meditation, qi gong, or t’ai chi with regular, moderate exercise. The organs involved in metabolic syndrome (from a Chinese perspective) are the spleen, pancreas, kidney, and liver. We tend to see a pattern of liver stagnation of qi and blood, with accompanying spleen and kidney deficiency. Regular acupuncture sessions help restore and regulate the flow of qi, which, in turn, helps nurture and repair the affected organs.

When I treat this disorder, I customize Chinese herbal formulas to treat the affected organs. Of course, the fastest road to recovery runs through diet and exercise, and I believe a whole grain or low-carb diet will best normalize blood sugar and insulin.

By Jake Paul Fratkin, OMD, LAc

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