To be physically healthy means feeling fit, strong, and vibrant and full of energy.
It also means that the physiological functions that keep us alive – that keep us breathing, moving, thinking, and reproducing – are working in optimally and in balance.
In simple terms, life is sustained by complex chemical interactions at a cellular level. These metabolic processes keep us alive and well by continually building energy up (anabolism) and breaking it down (catabolism).
Anabolic processes combine smaller molecules to create larger ones – think growth of muscles.
Catabolic processes break large molecules down into smaller ones, releasing energy in the process – think digestion.
If these processes cannot function optimally, our risk for chronic health issues increases exponentially.
And that’s why understanding more about metabolic health is both helpful and necessary. It’s through this understanding that we can make choices and decisions that will help improve our health and reduce the risk of a chronic illness.
What is metabolic health?
We often talk about having a fast or slow metabolism, which is about the speed at which we burn calories at rest.
But our metabolism is about far more than calories and weight. It’s about the chemical processes the body goes through to convert what we eat and drink into energy.
This energy allows us to function, move, grow, repair, store, reproduce, think, sleep, and even clear out the garbage (like damaged and dead cells).
Metabolic health is a measure of how well these chemical processes are functioning – how well the body is transforming the food and drink we ingest into energy without the use of any medications.
Signs of Poor Metabolic Health
If there’s a problem with your metabolism, the signs may be simple: low energy levels, depression, infertility, skin issues, or excess body fat.
Chronic metabolic dysfunction is more concerning. At this stage, more serious signs of poor health emerge, such as:
- High blood pressure (≥ 130 systolic and/or ≥ 85 diastolic),
- High blood sugar levels (≥ 5.6 mmol/L or diagnosed diabetes),
- A low HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or “good” cholesterol level (higher than 40 mg/dL or 1 mmol/L for men, and greater than 50 mg/dL or 1.3 mmol/L for women),
- High triglycerides (≥ 1.7 mmol/L or 150 mg/dL), and
- High waist circumference (≥ 94 cm for men and ≥ 80cm for women, although this differs based on the country).
A physician will diagnose a patient with metabolic syndrome if they have three or more of the above five criteria.
At this level, a person is at a greater risk of:
- Fatty liver disease,
- PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome),
- Cardiovascular disease,
- Type 2 diabetes,
- Certain cancers,
- Kidney disease, and
- Neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
What causes poor metabolic health?
A number of factors contribute to this higher risk level. These include:
- Food choices,
- The body’s rate of metabolism,
- The health of the gut microbiome,
- Physical activity levels,
- Poor sleep,
- Mental health,
- Age and sex, and
Why improve metabolic health?
Improving our metabolic health doesn’t just lower these risks. It also provides some important benefits. When our metabolic health improves:
- Our energy levels increase;
- We improve our ability to burn fat and achieve a healthy weight;
- Our immune system, hormones, and neurotransmitters all function better, improving our mood and mental health;
- Our sexual health improves;
- We lower our risk of chronic health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, strokes, and more.
Why is sugar such a big deal?
When we eat carbohydrates, they’re broken down into sugar. This sugar enters the bloodstream to provide energy to the cells. This triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which is a hormone.
The purpose of insulin is to prompt our cells to absorb blood sugar for energy – or, if there’s an excess, to store it as triglycerides in the muscles, liver, and fat cells.
The kidneys will also work to get rid of excess sugar, and in the process, the blood vessels in the kidneys may get damaged. This is usually coupled with an increase in blood pressure (hypertension). The body starts to retain fluid and the cycle of damage continues.
Once the cells have taken up the sugar from the blood, the levels drop. and the pancreas no longer releases insulin.
When the body has to process excess sugar continuously, it becomes resistant to insulin. This means that the cells don’t react to the prompt from insulin by allowing the sugar into the cells. Sugar builds up in the blood, and the pancreas produces more insulin in an attempt to bring the level down.
This exhausts the pancreas, so it starts producing less insulin. This allows blood sugar levels to rise even more. In addition to Type 2 diabetes, these high sugar levels cause inflammation, oxidative stress, and other metabolic issues.
How to Improve Metabolic Health
Quality of Diet
Eating the right foods for our body can make all the difference to our metabolic health. In the long term, it pays to avoid foods that:
- Contain high amounts of sugar;
- Are ultra-processed;
- Are genetically modified or contain additives and preservatives;
- Are high in fats (especially trans-fats); and
- Contain highly refined carbohydrates.
A healthy diet should include real, unprocessed foods that are low in carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) and higher in protein and healthy fats. We should also eat foods that feed the gut, including high-fibre plant foods and fermented foods.
Diets that have shown some success in helping improve metabolic health include low-carb, Paleo, Atkins, Mediterranean, Banting and other healthy, whole-food diets.
The common thread? All these diets reduce or eliminate sugar intake. Besides all the other issues so far discussed, sugar and inflammation go together and are linked to:
* An increased risk of depression;
* Inflamed arteries, including those connected to the heart;
* Kidney damage and risk for kidney disease, especially in Type 2 diabetics;
* Arthritis; and
* Erectile dysfunction.
Remember: The most appropriate diet is the one that works best with your preferences and lifestyle.
We were not designed to be sedentary. As humans, we require physical movement to stay healthy and this includes our metabolism. For anyone who is pre-diabetic, has Type-2 diabetes, or shows other signs of poor metabolic health, physical activity is essential. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve blood glucose levels and insulin resistance.
When we think about physical activity, we often think of exercise, but even general daily activities that keep us moving are helpful. Any physical activity is better than none. But to optimize our health and reduce the risk of problems, we need moderate intensity.
The recommendation from the WHO is that adults aged 18-64 should do:
- At least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or
- At least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or
- An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week; and also
- Muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
For adults aged 65 years and over, the WHO recommends a varied, multicomponent physical activity that emphasizes functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity, three or more days a week.
Exercise supports many important biological processes in the body. When these processes are functioning synergistically, they protect the body and help it to repair and restore itself.
Here are just some of the biological processes that show improvement from exercise:
- Physiological barriers. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. There are many barriers within the body, and their integrity is essential. Think about the skin, the blood-brain barrier, the gut, and even the smallest cells and their mitochondria. Good health depends on what these barriers allow inside and what they keep out.
- Systemic inflammation is a sign that the body is struggling, and the immune system is in overdrive trying to protect, repair, and renew itself.
- The immune system. Both the innate (the one we’re born with) and acquired (the one we develop) immune system function better when we exercise regularly. We all know how important a strong immune system is to our health.
- Communication between systems and organs. Examples include adipose tissue, the intestines, the brain, the heart, skeletal muscles, mitochondria, the liver, the lungs, and the endocrine system. There’s constant communication in the body, and we need many signals to keep us functioning.
- The gut. The gut microbiota play an essential role in our physical as well as mental health. Researchers have demonstrated that people who exercise regularly have greater diversity and better composition of bacterial colonies. And there’s substantial evidence that a healthy gut microbiome is essential for good health and reduction of chronic disease.
- Sleep and the circadian clock. Our circadian clock influences many systems and processes, including sleep. Exercise can reduce the effects of disrupted sleep patterns.
- Use of carbohydrates and fat during and after exercise. This is especially relevant when it comes to insulin resistance.
- Stress management. Physical activity helps to reduce stress hormones and stimulates the increase of endorphins in the brain.
We often underestimate the value of a regular good night’s sleep. To be healthy, humans require between seven to nine hours of sleep consistently. It has also been shown that going to sleep earlier rather than later is a far better practice than we would like to think!
The body undergoes a number of essential processes that help to repair and restore while we sleep. A good night’s sleep also has an effect on hormones. It influences insulin, which dictates both our blood sugar levels and our fat-burning capacity.
Sleep also influences ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Studies have shown that after a poor or disrupted night of sleep, ghrelin levels increase. This makes us far more likely to make poor food choices, especially foods containing high amounts of carbohydrates and sugar. This leads to a spike in blood sugar levels, increased body fat, and poorer health.
Setting up a good sleep routine is extremely beneficial. Consideration should be given to your sleeping environment, removing devices from sleeping area, eating at least two hours before going to sleep, winding down before going to bed, and reducing alcohol and caffeine.
There are many levels of stress. It can feel like being a bit out of harmony with yourself, or it can escalate all the way to constant fatigue, feelings of overwhelm, headaches, muscle tension, stomach upsets, sleeplessness, increased cravings for comfort foods, and high-risk behaviours.
When stress escalates and becomes chronic, it starts to damage the body.
When we’re stressed, our bodies have to work harder. Think of the flight-fight response: heart rate increases, adrenalin is released, blood vessels constrict, glucose is released to make energy available to the muscles and other vital organs, the immune system is activated, and even the eyes dilate to prepare for an attack.
In chronic stress, the body is in a continual state of preparedness, working harder and harder to bring itself back into balance. This is often in addition to things like sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, meds, and stimulants.
Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol that alter the metabolism. This increases the likelihood of weight gain (especially the accumulation of fat around the belly area), cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes.
It becomes increasingly difficult to counteract the stress response. The body eventually gets to the point of exhaustion, chronic stress sets in, and with it comes a high risk of metabolic syndrome.
There are many ways to manage stress; here are a few suggestions:
- Activities that take place in nature,
- Relaxation practices,
- Soothing music,
- Support groups,
- Journaling, and
Metabolic flexibility is a survival mechanism; It allows the body to generate energy from different foods based on what’s available. Our ability to switch between fat (fat oxidation) and carbohydrates (glucose oxidation) to produce energy allows us to survive when there’s an undersupply of food. We can go days without eating and still function.
Studies have shown that metabolic flexibility is associated with better health, as the body is burning energy rather than storing it. Metabolic inflexibility, on the other hand, is associated with poor metabolic health, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.
Some of the early signs of metabolic inflexibility include fatigue, inability to exercise in a fasted state, often feeling hungry, not sleeping well, and fluctuating blood sugar levels.
You can improve metabolic flexibility by making healthier food choices, establishing a regular active lifestyle, reducing stress, and having a good sleep routine.
Another effective way to improve metabolic flexibility is to engage in intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is an intentional process that involves not eating for a set number of hours per day. It may also include reducing calories during this period.
There are many variations, but the most common practice is to eat within a specific window such as 12, 10. or 8 hours. Other variations include fasting for 24 hours or reducing calories significantly on certain days.
It has been demonstrated that intermittent fasting also improves insulin resistance, reduces body fat, and supports weight loss. Benefits have also been seen with respect to cardiovascular and brain health.
Protein pacing may also be helpful when it comes to improving metabolic and cardiovascular health. Protein pacing combined with intermittent fasting has been shown to not only reduce body weight and visceral fat but also improve blood pressure and lipids and reduce the desire to eat.
Protein pacing is based on the idea that eating 20 to 40g of protein at specific, evenly spaced times throughout the day gives the body the right fuel at the right time.
The good news is that we can improve our metabolic health. The body is resilient, and with the right interventions it can repair and recover over time. How well it does this will be determined by the choices we make and the work we’re willing to put in to look after it.
We can transform our metabolic health by eating a healthy diet, leading a more active lifestyle, ensuring a good night’s sleep, and reducing our stress. Taking care of our metabolic health this way will allow us to lead a healthier life into our senior years.
If you would like to improve your metabolic health through lifestyle changes, then speak to us about how health coaching can help you.