When Santa got stuck up the chimney he began to shout … “you girls and boys won’t get any toys if you don’t pull me out”! How, how, how… did Santa get stuck up there? Hmmm.. it looks like he could have Syndrome X.
All grown up now, I can take an objective view of this Jolly ol’ fella who may have added some magic to my childhood memories. Although I sometimes wonder at the scale of psychological damage inflicted in the name of Santa, on the innocent, who offer only pure belief and love in return. I know that my own mother made a conscious effort to play down the character of ‘Santa’ with us kids because she was so devastated to find out in her own childhood that he wasn’t real. And, at our office Christmas celebrations one year, a colleague recalled how, at age 12 and being the oldest child in her family, she got ‘the truth’ along with her Christmas present. In one swift and traumatic moment she was handed a new pair of gloves and leveled with an instruction to grow up, as she watched her younger siblings open their Christmas toys. “You better watch out, you better not cry”, even though you’ve been snookered by a lie! I thank my mother for having the wisdom to save us from at least falling hook, line and sinker for the phantom that is Santa. Anyway, I digress!
What is Syndrome X ?
There is no direct connection between Syndrome X and Santa or Xmas, the season of stress and over-indulgence, but indirectly it seems like the perfect occasion to talk about this health condition. Syndrome X is also called ‘Metabolic Syndrome’ [MetS]. MetS is a metabolic imbalance. This means that how your body metabolizes and stores energy is off balance. The physical manifestation of MetS is ‘fat around the middle’, also called visceral fat. Scientists now know that storing fat around the middle of your body rather than anywhere else, has major health implications, and studies show that it increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. But, you don’t even have to be overweight to carry fat around the middle. And, it’s not only about what you eat, your diet is just one contributing factor.
Why does the body store fat around the middle?
Turns out it is Santa who had better watch out! Like some of us, this is how his body responds to stress. More specifically, he is apple shaped and the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ is sending his extra calories to his tummy fat store. You see, in a stressful situation (fight or flight response), the adrenaline released helps to get you alert and focused, whilst the cortisol increases levels of fat and sugar in the bloodstream to give you the energy to move. But if you don’t do something physical, as your body is expecting you to, all that extra energy in the form of fat and glucose has nowhere to go and must simply be re-deposited as fat.
Plus, when your cortisol levels are high (due to long-term unresolved stress) your body is getting the message from those cortisol hormones to ‘refuel’, and so your appetite increases. Now, this response is appropriate if you’ve had a big shock and you are in recovery, but this response is not helpful if you suffer constant unrelieved work stress, for example, and respond with constant refueling. It is also worth noting here that the foods you are most likely to choose in response to stress are quick fix energy boosters like sugary snacks, stimulants and fatty foods.
There is nothing random about the fact that this stored fat goes to your middle. It’s your body’s clever way of protecting you from what it perceives as the next stress attack or lack. You see the abdomen is closely located to the liver where stored fat (energy in the form of glycogen) can be quickly converted back into energy if needed.
Simply put, if you are under constant stress, your body produces a stress response in the form of cortisol, that increases appetite and the likelihood you will reach for junk food, so it is not that you are entirely weak willed, it is an actual physical urge. If you have little physical activity to burn off stored energy this makes matters worse. This belly fat is metabolically active with four times the amount of cortisol receptors than anywhere else in the body. So, if you are constantly stressed, your belly fat acts like a magnet, begging for re-enforcement to accumulate more stored energy. This explains why fat accumulates so readily in this part of the body.
Who is at risk?
According to Marilyn Glenville, PhD, an expert in this field, between two women with the same weight, height and BMI, the one that carries her fat around her tummy is at greater risk of metabolic imbalance and therefore chronic diseases, than the one who carries fat on her hips and thighs.
An easy way to check your health risk is to take a hip to waist ratio measurement. Measure your hips at their widest point and your waist at its narrowest point (about an inch above your belly button). Divide the waist measurement by hip measurement. For example, 32 inch waist / 40 inch hips = 0.8.
Why is tummy fat such a health risk?
Not all fat cells behave the same. It turns out visceral fat is metabolically active while that hip and thigh fat is relatively inert. This means it’s not just sitting there like the fake padding you can buy to fill out your Santa suit, it is actively producing hormones and chemicals that contribute to metabolic imbalance. It can affect the way insulin is used, raise blood pressure and increase the amount of cholesterol in the body. If this pattern is not halted or reversed it will eventually result in a diagnosis of MetS which is defined as: “a cluster of 3 or more related cardio-metabolic risk factors: central obesity (determined by waist circumference), hypertension, hypertriglyceridemia, low plasma high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and hyperglycemia. Having the syndrome increases a person’s risk for type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition, the condition is associated with increased morbidity and all cause mortality.”
In a nutshell, high stress levels contribute to your expanding waist line. If your body is apple shaped as opposed to pear shaped, you are genetically more at risk. Your appetite may be driven more by hormone imbalance (compulsion) rather than actual hunger. High blood pressure, high LDL and low HDL cholesterol and high blood sugar levels may result, and expose you to a greater risk to chronic disease.
How stressed are you?
Continuous stress is the underlying cause and so managing stress is a number one priority in addressing this condition. However, you may not even recognize you are stressed. You may have resorted to coping strategies to get by, as follows:
- Overeating – especially sweet foods, chocolate, cakes, bread etc.
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Using tea or coffee to get you through the day
- Overspending – using retail therapy as a stress release
- Watching too much television – it stops you from thinking
You may also experience feelings of helplessness and wild mood swings, crying spells, aggression and anxiety. Does any of this sound familiar?
A daily practice of quiet meditation or mindfulness practice, and this can include mindful action like walking or any other physical tasks where you can manage to focus the mind on what you are doing and edge out the stressful chattering thoughts. Yoga, deep breathing and any practice that allows your body and mind to relax and let go of stress, will help to address metabolic imbalance.
It’s not just about what you eat!
This is true, and although eating lots of carbohydrates would naturally be a contributing factor, we need to understand more about that stress hormone ‘cortisol’! You might just assume the only sources of stress are mental or emotional. Not so! Cortisol is released into your body when you skip meals, breakfast for example, or if you allow long periods of time between meals e.g. over 4 hours. Cortisol is released into your body when you over exercise. Cortisol is released into your body when you consume stimulants like caffeine that affect the adrenal glands.
Cortisol is high in the morning (wake up) and gradually decreases as the day goes on. It should be low at night so you are ready to get a good night’s restorative sleep. So, as well as incorporating stress reduction techniques, it is important to eat moderately and regularly. Don’t over-exercise (especially in the evening time) you don’t want that cortisol surge upsetting your much needed sleep. Exercise earlier in the day, if possible. And, of course, avoid, reduce or remove stimulants like tea, coffee and alcohol, especially later in the day.
Will the real Santa please stand up
How many men do you know over the age of 50 that would need that extra padding for the Santa suit? Not many, I’d say. This physique is not an uncommon sight. ‘Middle age spread’ is no longer reserved for middle age nor is it gender specific, it has spread to all people of all ages.
Our bodies are biochemically wired to survive. Stress, from whatever source, signals the body to shut down, conserve energy and hold on to its reserves. The body does not distinguish between one stress trigger and another, it just responds. It must be you that knows what the triggers are and work with your body to manage these responses.
We are blessed to live in a time where we are surrounded by labour saving devices in the home. We drive to work and the car serves as an extension of our shopping trolley. Physical activity is a choice. We don’t even have to get off the sofa to switch channels anymore. We have an abundance of foods to choose from. We can easily opt for convenience all the time. In fact, it is harder not to. But with all this ease, ironically comes disease and more stress than ever before. Our modern day struggle is against inertia.
To stay healthy and well we need to include more daily physical movement. We need to eat simple whole foods regularly throughout the day, which may involve preparing and making meals, and sometimes we need to ditch the super stressed highway to success in favour of some quiet time or mindful activity.
I’ll finish with a quote I found on-line. Although this blog talks about physical shape (the manifest Syndrome X Santa) I hope the deeper message is also clear – that we can and do shape ourselves by the choices we make each and every day.
IT’S UP TO ME TO SHAPE IT,
TO TAKE CONTROL AND SEIZE EVERY OPPORTUNITY.
THE POWER IS IN THE CHOICES I MAKE EACH DAY.
I EAT WELL, I LIVE WELL. I SHAPE ME!
Please feel free to download my one page Christmas edition 🙂 pdf
- Glenville, M. ‘Fat Around the Middle’ (2006). Kyle Books: London
Marilyn Gleville Clinics run ‘Fat around the middle courses’ in Ireland from time to time see website: https://glenvillenutrition.ie/
Reading: The 4 Pillar Plan, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee