Natural Foods Merchandiser

Herbs, Nutrients Supplement Syndrome X Care

With almost two-thirds of the U.S. population overweight—and millions suffering from high blood pressure and high cholesterol—it's almost certain that on any given day, you'll talk with several people in your store who have Syndrome X.

Syndrome what? If the term doesn't ring a bell, the symptoms probably do—excess weight around the middle, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides and high blood cholesterol levels. Just one of these conditions increases the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But the more Syndrome X indicators people have, the more at risk they are—not just for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but for disease in general.

Insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, lies at the core of Syndrome X. Insulin resistance and Syndrome X develop over time from a diet high in refined carbohydrates, such as sweets, breads and flour- and sugar-based snack foods. These foods trigger a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, and in turn the body pumps out high amounts of blood-sugar-regulating insulin.

Eventually, the body's cells become overwhelmed by so much insulin and actually become resistant (or not very receptive) to it. This hormone imbalance—insulin resistance—alters blood-fat ratios, raises blood pressure and increases fat storage, leading to the cluster of heart-disease risk factors known as Syndrome X.

The typical American diet, high in refined carbohydrates and refined fats, primes the body for developing Syndrome X, and the longer these foods are eaten, the greater the risk becomes.

Middle-aged baby boomers are the most likely candidates to get Syndrome X, but teenagers and children also can develop the condition.
Middle-aged baby boomers are the most likely candidates to get Syndrome X, but teenagers and children also can develop the condition. Type 2 diabetics almost always have several Syndrome X indicators, as do women who have polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition typically characterized by irregular menstrual cycles, ovarian cysts and excess facial hair.

A diet rich in protein and unprocessed, low-carbohydrate, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables is the best line of defense against Syndrome X. But you as a retailer also have many supplements at your disposal that can help combat this condition, and its consequences, and lead your customers on the road to better health.

First, there are the antioxidants—alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin E and vitamin C. All three neutralize cell-damaging free radicals, which are at higher-than-normal levels in individuals with Syndrome X.

Each antioxidant also offers unique benefits for improving faulty blood sugar function—a key strategy for improving Syndrome X. For example, alpha-lipoic acid, a vitamin-like substance that plays crucial roles in the burning of blood sugar for energy, also reduces insulin resistance, lowers blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity (Diabetes Care, 1999; Diabetes und Stoffwechsel, 1996).

Natural vitamin E also has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels. Plus, it helps protect against heart disease, a common consequence of Syndrome X. Vitamin C lowers blood sugar and normalizes insulin's response to it (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1994) and also improves some of the individual components of Syndrome X, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Therefore, all three antioxidants work in different but synergistic ways to protect against Syndrome X.

Chromium, zinc and magnesium also are anti-X nutrients. All three minerals play critical roles in maintaining proper insulin function. Deficiencies can lead to abnormal insulin function and an increased risk of developing Syndrome X.

The mineral standout among these may be chromium in the form of chromium picolinate. Chromium is so effective at reversing insulin resistance that one 1997 study found that 1,000 mcg of chromium picolinate daily reduced blood sugar and insulin levels in type 2 diabetics to near normal after four months—something that medications could not achieve (Diabetes, 1997). In various other studies, chromium also has been found to help normalize the individual components of Syndrome X.

And in daily dosages of 200 to 400 mcg, chromium helps those with reactive hypoglycemia (blood sugar highs followed by blood sugar lows). So, chromium acts as a blood sugar regulator. However, those who take sugar-lowering drugs should take note: Supplemental chromium works so well at improving insulin function that less medication is usually needed. Sometimes, medication can be eliminated completely over time. This is a good thing—it indicates a reversal or lessening of insulin resistance—but it also means that your customers should work with their doctors to carefully monitor their condition and avoid overmedicating themselves.

In addition to chromium, herbalists have a long tradition of using herbs including ginseng, fenugreek, bitter melon and Gymnema sylvestre to help reduce the high blood sugar levels that can occur with Syndrome X. And research is slowly but surely confirming that these herbs do have blood-sugar-lowering properties. In one study out of the University of Toronto, healthy subjects who were given American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), had a 26 percent to 38 percent reduction in blood sugar levels, while diabetics who took the herb had a 20 percent reduction (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2000).

Silymarin, or milk thistle extract, is another top herb for lowering blood sugar levels. In one study with 60 type 2 diabetics, those who took silymarin experienced a significant drop in their blood sugar levels, but did not experience bouts of low blood sugar. The patients' fasting insulin levels decreased by an average of 40 percent—indicating a significant reduction in insulin resistance (Journal of Hepatology, 1997). Silymarin also improves liver function, which is noteworthy because the liver plays an important role in maintaining normal blood sugar levels.

Fortunately, many supplements have been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms—and underlying cause—of Syndrome X. Although many of your customers may not realize they have Syndrome X, you can get a good indication of whether they do based on their weight and symptoms. Help those customers by educating them about Syndrome X and blood sugar function and steering them toward the supplements that have proven therapeutic benefits for this increasingly common condition.

Melissa Diane Smith is a nutritionist and health journalist based in Tucson, Ariz. Her books include Syndrome X (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) as well as User's Guide to Vitamin E (Basic Health Publications, 2002), User's Guide to Chromium (Basic Health Publications, 2002) and Going Against the Grain (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2002). For more information, visit or

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 50, 52

The Main Indicators of Syndrome X

  • Abdominal obesity

  • High blood pressure (blood pressure readings consistently higher than 140/90)

  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol readings (total cholesterol above 240 mg/dL, or HDL cholesterol levels less than one-fourth of total blood cholesterol levels)

  • High blood triglyceride levels (blood triglyceride levels above 160 mg/dL)

Early Warning Signs

  • Overweight, even slightly so, especially around the abdomen

  • Frequent cravings for sweets, breads and other carbohydrates

  • Tiredness or sleepiness after meals

  • Frequent thirst and urination, or blood sugar levels above 100 mg/dL

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 52

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