A Naturopathic Approach to Metabolic Syndrome

A Naturopathic Approach to Metabolic Syndrome

by Nick Edgerton

Metabolism is the summation of active chemical processes in an organism to support life. With lackadaisical metabolism comes onset of disease. Metabolic syndrome, also referred to as metabolic imbalance or Syndrome X, is a group of coinciding biological parameters that increase the risk of developing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM). The diagnosis is formally given when an individual has met three of the following five criteria:


1) Abdominal waist circumference, apple-shaped, males >40in, females >35in

2) Serum triglycerides >150mg/dl

3) HDL “good” cholesterol, males <40mg/dl, females <50mg/dl

4) Blood Pressure >130/85

5) Fasting Blood Glucose (FBG) >100mg/dl

In simpler terms, metabolic syndrome is a disease of lifestyle. Unhealthy nutritional habits, a lack of regular physical activity and excess stress are all major factors in promoting the aforementioned parameters. Metabolic syndrome is the precursor to heart disease and diabetes, with heart disease being the number one killer in the U.S. It is estimated by the American Heart Association that more than 1 in 3 Americans have this syndrome. This is a significant problem. If this rate does not decrease, it poses a strong threat to our healthcare system and economy.

However, metabolic syndrome is a lot more than just heart disease and diabetes. Often, one’s entire hormone profile will be imbalanced. With this, one may have hypothyroidism, significant menopausal symptoms or andropause (also known as male menopause).

Key Metabolic Factors

Cholesterol is heralded as a major element in the development of heart disease. However, there is confusion around this subject. In fact, dietary cholesterol isn’t as significant as once believed. More importantly, stress, refined sugars, processed foods and sedentary lifestyle will promote cholesterol problems. Furthermore, physicians can be more precise when diagnosing high cholesterol. The classic lipid panel blood test measures the weight of cholesterol, which is not as clinically relevant as the number of cholesterol particles and the particle sizes. Measuring the weight of cholesterol may lead to unnecessary statin prescription, and conversely may miss heart disease in some people. Also, there’s a genetic influence on cholesterol synthesis; a nutrigenomic analysis may be useful, but more importantly, looking at family history is a huge part of the unique assessment. This is true preventative medicine, a solution to the healthcare problem.

Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal gland axis dysfunction (HPA dysfunction) is an issue with communication between these three glands and the hormones they produce. HPA glands are responsible for basic life functions like thirst, appetite, libido, energy, growth, etc. The hypothalamus is at the base of the brain and sends hormones to the pituitary gland (located right below the hypothalamus), which then releases many different hormones acting on several glands, including the thyroid and adrenals.

The thyroid gland is considered the body’s thermostat and the master of metabolism. Low thyroid function causes symptoms of slow metabolism: weight gain, constipation, feeling cold and more. Active thyroid hormone, or T3, acts on every cell in the body, which stimulates the cells to work harder.

Adrenal fatigue is a common but often misunderstood condition. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and secrete several hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). When taxed with stress for ongoing periods, the adrenals produce aberrant levels of these hormones. This does not mean they are not functioning at all—they are just not working optimally. DHEA is the precursor to sex hormones: testosterone and estrogen. When DHEA is not at sufficient levels, testosterone production can be reduced, making it harder to shed fat and build muscle.

Cortisol is the “stress” hormone, and when this is out of balance, one will see stubborn abdominal weight gain (metabolic syndrome factor). Cortisol inhibits the ability to burn fat for energy. Instead, fat stays elevated in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia, metabolic syndrome factor) and eventually gets stored as fat.

How to Improve Metabolism

The discussion of treatment for this condition can be complex when you consider all the different hormones that are at play. Nevertheless, there are fundamental shifts that anyone can start today which will encourage overlapping and holistic benefits.

Exercise burns excess blood sugar, reduces bad cholesterol, increases good cholesterol, increases T3 sensitivity improving thyroid function, reduces stress, balances cortisol, burns calories, releases nitric oxide and reduces blood pressure, among other benefits. Regular physical activity (RPA) is defined as 30 to 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise—50 to 70 percent of Heart Rate Maximum (HRmax= 220-age)—at least three days a week. RPA has been shown to decrease risk factors of all chronic disease, including heart disease and diabetes.

Every time we eat, we have a choice to consume food that will either fight disease or feed disease. Proper nutrition will vary person to person, however it is not a coincidence that the leading therapeutic diets today—Whole30, paleo, vegetarian, BloodType diet, Autoimmune Protocol and Anti-Inflammatory diet—all focus on whole food and plant-based nutrition. These diets recommend limiting or avoiding inflammatory food groups such as wheat, dairy, refined sugars and processed meats. Eat foods that don’t have ingredients, but instead are the ingredients; this is whole food. Today, there are healthy home delivery meal programs which make this radical shift much more approachable.

Stress management and proper sleep hygiene influence the treatment of metabolic syndrome. As outlined previously, cortisol is detrimental for several reasons: insomnia, weight gain, hypertriglyceridemia, hyperinsulinemia. Botanical medicine, mindful meditation, acupuncture, craniosacral treatment and counseling, among other treatments, have been documented to normalize cortisol. It is not always possible to eliminate stressors in our life, but one can take a proactive path in positively affecting the response to stressors. There is great potential in preventative medicine, with the goal to reverse syndromes before they become disease.

From nutritional interventions and stress management techniques like acupuncture, to advanced hormone testing and nutritional supplement recommendations, Naturopathic Doctors are trained in preventing and treating metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Nick Edgerton, ND, LAc is a licensed naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist at Collaborative Natural Health Specialists, LLC. He is an in-network provider with most major health insurance companies. Please call 860-533-0178 for an appointment. See ad, page 22.

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