Let’s play doctor for a moment. A routine checkup reveals a patient with these symptoms:
- high blood pressure
- low HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, although not necessarily high total cholesterol levels
- high blood insulin
- high triglyceride levels
- high blood sugar
- excess fat in the abdominal region
Are you stumped for a diagnosis? Doctors call this mysterious cluster of symptoms “syndrome X.” Unfortunately, identifying syndrome X is not always easy, largely because its symptoms often are silent. Yet spotting this group of symptoms and intervening as soon as possible can help people fight heart disease.
A significant danger associated with syndrome X is insulin resistance, which, say experts, affects more than 68 million Americans and accounts for a significant percentage of heart disease. When all is functioning as it should, the hormone insulin allows glucose, or blood sugar, to penetrate the cell walls, where it is needed for energy. In insulin resistance, however, the body doesn’t “see” the insulin, so cells don’t get the needed glucose. As a result, excess insulin and glucose build up in the bloodstream.
Another telltale sign of syndrome X is the accumulation of fat around the stomach. Abdominal fat is particularly dangerous because it breaks down triglycerides, triggering the release of small, dense, fatty acids into the bloodstream. These fatty acids quickly deposit on artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries.
In addition, excess insulin and fatty acids in the bloodstream make it more difficult for blood clots to be dissolved, increasing the chances of a blocked artery and a heart attack or stroke.
You can be on the lookout for syndrome X yourself by tracking these clues:
- Use your measuring tape. Men with waistlines over 40 inches and women with waistlines over 35 inches most likely are storing too much fat in their abdominal regions—a key symptom of syndrome X.
- Get your numbers. If your level of HDL cholesterol—the “good” cholesterol—is less than 50 (for women) and 40 (for men), you may have syndrome x.
- Don’t stop at cholesterol. Ask about your triglyceride levels. Your number should be 150 milligrams per deciliter or lower. Anything higher, especially when combined with other risk factors, points to syndrome X.
Although there isn’t one drug that will cure syndrome X, making two lifestyle changes can help cut your chance of developing heart disease, a common consequence of this mysterious condition.
- Exercise. Physical activity has been called the best drug for insulin resistance. Not only does it aid in weight loss (and waist-size reduction), it also helps improve the body’s use of insulin. A good choice for physical activity is walking. Although your leisurely after-dinner stroll may not be enough to combat syndrome X, just pick up the pace so your heart gets a good workout. Forty-five minutes to an hour most days of the week should do the trick.
- Eat right. A diet low in saturated fats but high in “healthful” fats (such as avocados, nuts and salmon) and whole grains is the second important way to fight off syndrome X. In any case, proper nutrition goes hand-in-hand with physical activity when it comes to trimming the waistline.