Understanding Syndrome X

The Early Show continues its weeklong "Healthy Heart" series Tuesday with a closer look at a condition known as Syndrome X, or Metabolic syndrome.

If left untreated, it can lead to serious medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports on this mysterious syndrome and offers some advice on how to avoid it.

According to Senay's book, "From Boys To Men," the term Syndrome X was first coined in the late 1980s by Dr. Gerald Reaven, of Stanford University, who wanted to alert doctors to a group of patients who didn't have actual diabetes but were still at great risk of developing other problems that could cause them to develop heart disease.

Says the book: "If there is a triple whammy in medicine this is it. Metabolic syndrome is not really a single illness but rather a cluster of problems - obesity (especially in the abdomen), high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high triglycerides, and low HDL levels. When a person has this syndrome - as some 60 million to 75 million Americans do - it puts them at greater risk of heart disease. People with Metabolic syndrome are four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke that those who do not have the condition."

A syndrome is defined as a cluster of related symptoms or disorders - it's not a disease. Syndrome X is a combination of conditions that all result from the primary disorder of insulin resistance. All the metabolic problems associated with Syndrome X such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides can lead to other diseases, but when several are combined, the chances of life-threatening illnesses are multiplied.

People with this syndrome – which is estimated to affect more than 60 million Americans -- are four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who do not have the condition.

People struggling with obesity are prone to the condition. Many doctors believe it is based on genetics, so you should know if there's a history of metabolic medical problems in your family, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or high cholesterol. Also, an unhealthy diet consisting of a lot of fatty and sugary foods, or food high in carbohydrates (like breads, pasta and cake) will increase your risk of developing this syndrome.

Symptoms:
Weight gain, along with difficulty losing weight and keeping it off is usually one of the first signs of Syndrome X. If you're not physically active, and feel sluggish and tired at various points throughout the day, you may be at risk. Also, next time you go to the doctor, make sure you have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked. If you notice that your blood pressure is creeping up and up and see that your cholesterol level is also on the rise, you may be suffering from Metabolic syndrome.

If you think your doctor isn't doing enough and you're concerned you may be afflicted with this syndrome, you may want to make an appointment with an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in hormone-linked diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Prevention:
If your diet consists of foods rich in carbohydrates, you're going to increase your chances of getting Metabolic syndrome because carbohydrates raise glucose and insulin to unhealthy levels. They also lack many vitamins, minerals, and nutrients our bodies need. So you have to make an effort to change your eating habits if this is the case.

Another key to avoiding this syndrome is exercise. A study found that people who did some aerobic-type exercise that caused them to sweat a little for 30 minutes three times a week cut their risk of going from Syndrome X to full-blown diabetes by nearly 60 percent. In addition, exercise and weight loss can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Smoking also plays a small role in increasing your chances of developing Syndrome X, because studies show it promotes insulin resistance. So you should consider quitting, or at least cutting back on cigarettes.