The word “metabolism” is often used in the context of weight — but while metabolism impacts your body weight, it’s actually a vital part of life.
Let’s take a look at what metabolism is, what it supports within the body, and how to optimize your metabolic health.
What is metabolism?
Metabolism is the process by which a living organism performs actions that keep that organism alive. In short, metabolism is the biochemical process of staying alive.
There are three basic purposes of metabolism:
- Converting food into energy to power cellular processes
- Converting food into the “raw material” your body needs to form proteins, fats, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates
- Eliminating metabolic waste
Two types of metabolic reactions allow all of this to happen. Catabolic reactions in metabolism are what break down compounds (like during digestion), and anabolic reactions build up new compounds (proteins, etc.).
To give a real-life example: When you eat food, your body begins to break down the complex compounds in that food by the process of digestion. Metabolism is what both breaks down these compounds, then transforms them into new compounds. This happens when catalysts, known as enzymes, trigger a series of metabolic reactions in “metabolic pathways”.
Fast vs. Slow Metabolism
When someone says their metabolism is “slow” or “fast”, they are referring to their metabolic rate (MR). Metabolic rate (MR) is “the minimum level of energy expended by the body to sustain life”.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy actually used to support normal human functions while awake.
The metabolic rate of the body, as a whole, is impacted by weight. In general, the more bodyweight a person has, the higher their energy expenditure requirements.
To state it a different way, the more you weigh, the more work it requires to live — on a molecular level.
Metabolism is calculated by looking at your BMR compared to fat-free mass, or everything in your body not including fat. More percentage of fat-free body mass equals a “higher” metabolism!
Metabolism & Every System in the Human Body
It’s not just about weight; metabolism occurs in every part of the body and has an impact on us from head to toe.
Ideal metabolic health means the body operates at its best, including your:
- Immune system
- Digestive system
- Cardiovascular system
- Endocrine system
- Nervous system
- Reproductive system
- Respiratory system
Think of it this way: When your body is processing, building, and breaking down things as it was designed to do, everything tends to just… work.
Even though fat and muscle together make up over 60% of your total mass, your basal metabolic rate only expends about 3% of its total energy on burning fat and just 20% on fueling muscles. The remaining energy is used to keep your heart, brain, kidneys, liver, digestive system, and other bodily functions operating as expected.
Causes & Risk Factors for Less-Than-Optimal Metabolic Health
While a balanced metabolism is ideal, there are a number of known risk factors keeping us from optimal metabolic health. These are not necessarily causes of metabolic issues, but are connected with them in some way.
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet
- Increasing age
- Weakened immune system
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver issues
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
A number of causes act together to create metabolic concerns. Some can’t be controlled, while others can. For example, genetics — though we can’t choose or change it, our family history and genetics influence our health.
The importance of metabolic health intensifies as we age.
On the other hand, factors like excess weight and daily physical activity are controllable factors related to metabolic health.
There is also a distinct connection between metabolic health and the immune system.
That’s encouraging — because your immune system is revitalized every 100 days! In fewer than 4 months, you have the opportunity to get a fresh start.
4 Pillars for Optimal Metabolic Health
Metabolic health is not a symptom you treat with a magic bullet. Metabolic health is a combination of dozens, potentially hundreds, of factors that you can influence throughout your entire life.
Take a look at the top four pillars that are known to support a healthy metabolism. How many of these can you implement?
1. Lifestyle Changes
Lifestyle changes are the number one factor you can influence to promote good metabolic health. The way you breathe, sleep, and your diet have a high impact on your mood.
A healthy lifestyle that supports your metabolic processes may include:
- Zero or moderate alcohol intake: Moderate beer and wine drinking may actually protect against metabolism concerns. However, heavy drinking will have the opposite effect. Alcohol abstinence may also be a beneficial choice.
- Quitting smoking: There are myriad reasons to quit smoking, and supporting a healthy metabolism is one of them.
- Physical fitness: In general, 30-60 minutes per day of physical activity of any kind is ideal for keeping your body in good shape. Those 30-60 minutes can be collected throughout the day — they don’t have to happen all at once. Brisk walking is the most highly recommended form of fitness to practice. The more physical activity you participate in, the more your body will benefit. There are many ways to improve your fitness.
- Good sleep: Sleep impacts every area of your body, from the immune system to your brain. Sleep quality and duration have a huge influence on nearly every feature of health. Sleep at least 7-8 hours per night, address signs of sleep-disordered breathing and take brief naps (under 30 minutes per day).
- Minimal screen time: Spending fewer than 2 hours per day in front of a TV is associated with a healthy metabolism.
- Full-time work: Working 40 or more hours per week seems to be beneficial for metabolism.
- Positive relationships: Want to avoid metabolic issues? Spending one hour per day with your friends may help get you there. In general, a community of supportive, healthy friends and family relationships can not only improve metabolic health but also positively impact your mental health.
- Healthy weight management: Because fat mass requires your metabolism to work on overdrive, promoting a healthy weight can help to alleviate concerns with metabolic health.
2. Healthy Diet
A healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods and low in sugar and empty calories can reduce your risk for metabolic concerns.
The following dietary patterns may be most beneficial, according to available research:
- Mediterranean diet: To follow the Mediterranean diet, fill your plate with whole grains, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and high-quality meat and dairy products. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a significantly higher lifespan and overall health. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends this diet for people at risk for heart concerns.
- DASH diet: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) is a diet developed and promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It’s targeted towards blood pressure, but may improve other metabolic syndrome risk factors, too. The DASH diet involves reducing sodium intake and eating primarily fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts.
- Keto diet: The ketogenic, or keto, diet, is a dietary pattern of very high fat intake, very low carb intake, and moderate protein intake. A healthy keto diet emphasizes food quality but is most concerned with ketosis, a metabolic state in which the body uses fat and ketones, rather than glucose, for energy. Ketosis is good for the way your body produces insulin, supports weight management, promotes healthy blood sugar levels, and balances inflammation even more effectively than a very low-calorie diet. A 2017 clinical trial followed patients with metabolic issues for 10 weeks and found a keto diet successfully improved several metabolic markers.
- Nordic diet: Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet focuses on seasonal foods common to Nordic countries. It’s high in healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, certain whole grains, and fatty fish. A 2013 clinical trial found that the Nordic diet improved blood cholesterol levels and balanced inflammation in people with markers of metabolic concerns.
- Plant-based diets: Plant-based diets, such as the vegetarian or vegan diet, may be associated with a lower risk of metabolic problems. However, little high-quality research confirms whether or not these diets can reverse metabolic dysfunction once it starts.
These diets all have a few factors in common. Even if you choose not to follow a specific diet listed above, follow these healthy diet tips:
- Stick to a reasonable number of calories per day (2,000 calories per day as a baseline)
- Eat high-quality, minimally processed foods
- Fill your diet with fruits and vegetables
- Eat healthy fats, like olive oil, avocados, and grass-fed butter
- Eat fatty fish and nuts, which are high in omega-3s that promote heart health
- Use healthy natural, low-calorie sweeteners in moderation, including stevia, allulose, monk fruit, xylitol, and erythritol
- Reduce your sugar intake as much as possible
- Don’t fill your diet with artificial sweeteners that may increase weight gain, like aspartame, Ace-K, sucralose, neotame, saccharin, and cyclamate
Switching your diet can seem like a daunting task. But, if you can replace the processed, high-sugar, and highly acidic foods with a diet full of nutrient-dense, whole foods, the results will occur quickly and last your lifetime.
3. Eliminate Toxins
Did you know that the household and food chemicals you’ve been exposed to since childhood can actually impact your metabolism?
You may want to reduce your exposure to chemicals like:
- BPA (Bisphenol A)
- Chemical pesticides
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs)
BPA is a common chemical found in plastics, paper receipts, and other common items. A 2008 study found that BPA exposure may inhibit the release of a fat-specific hormone that keeps insulin sensitivity and inflammation in check, which can increase the risk of metabolic problems.
Household chemicals frequently disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. These are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These may be a contributing factor to metabolic issues.
Chemicals like these are frequently found in innocuous places, like:
- Personal care products (makeup, face and body wash, hand soap, lotions, etc.)
- Household cleaners and detergents
- Food packaging
- Furniture and upholstery
- Medical equipment
4. Use Dietary Supplements
As an add-on to a healthy lifestyle and diet, certain supplements (“nutraceuticals”) may promote a healthy metabolism.
Dietary supplements that support metabolic health include:
- CBD (cannabidiol)
- Curcumin (from turmeric)
- Green tea
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
Metabolism & the Immune System
There is a strong correlation between metabolic concerns and issues with the immune system. In fact, there is evidence when your immune system isn’t in order, you may be at a higher risk for weight gain.
The majority of your immune system lives in your gut. The best way to support the immune system is by supporting good gut health.
A Whole-Body Approach to Health
One-third of Americans deal with metabolic concerns every day. For the body to operate at its best, metabolism must be managed.
There is clear scientific evidence that the immune system plays a major role in metabolism. To support your metabolism, support your immune system!
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