Metabolism and Metabolic Health by Functional Nutritionist Andrea Nicholson

Metabolism and Metabolic Health

Metabolic health is one of my primary focuses in my practice because studies have shown that nearly everyone has some level of metabolic dysfunction in America…in 2018 a study published by the University of North Carolina found that only 12% of the population meet all 5 primary criteria of good metabolic health – waist circumference, glucose, blood pressure, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol (or taking medications for any of these). And those statistics were collected between 2009-2016 – so pre-COVID. Many studies have shown the overall population of adults and kids got dramatically sicker during the pandemic (and not from the virus). So it’s highly likely that these numbers will be even worse today. Whether you have any of these conditions or not, this information is valuable – because I guarantee you know someone who has poor metabolic health.

Metabolism is often thought of as simply how many calories you burn each day – ie. having a fast or slow metabolism. In this context, it is boiled down to essentially how easily you lose or maintain weight. But this is only one small part of metabolism.

Metabolism really sums up every chemical reaction in your body that contributes to energy production and utilization – directly impacted by your food choices, microbiome, exercise, sleep, stress, mental health, lifestyle, medications, and so much more. Having a healthy metabolism means your body can properly digest and absorb nutrients (let’s face it – if you can’t digest and absorb the quality nutrients you’re taking in, what good is it to eat a healthy diet?).

We also want to be able to avoid large blood sugar spikes, excess fat in your blood, high levels of inflammation, and excess insulin doses. All of these conditions can contribute to elevated levels of unhealthy cholesterol, increased body fat stores, a larger waist circumference, and high blood pressure.

What is metabolic health?

Having good metabolic health means you have a lower risk of all metabolic diseases. This means your body can respond to and use food in a beneficial way that reduces your risk of chronic diseases. There are some factors like age, genetics, and sex that you don’t control – but this is mostly driven by things you do control – like what you eat, how often you eat, how much you eat, how well you take care of your gut microbes, how well you take care of your liver, how much and what type of exercise you do, how well you manage stress loads, and how well you prioritize your mental health.

In the study of out North Carolina, they noted that less than 1/3 of the normal weight population were metabolically healthy, so this is NOT just about being overweight. Of course, being overweight or obese did increase the risk – with 92% overweight and 95% obese were metabolically unhealthy.

What are metabolic diseases and conditions?

Most people think of type 2 diabetes and obesity, but heart disease, cancer, stroke, kidney disease, fatty liver disease, migraines, infertility conditions like PCOS and erectile dysfunction, and even thyroid disorders fall into this category. Inflammation is another big category that is often elevated in those with metabolic diseases – and inflammation causes and worsens metabolic diseases, autoimmune conditions, pain, and fatigue.

Let’s break down just a few of the causes of unhealthy metabolic function that you can control:
  • Blood sugar spikes. Over time, this can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress (free radical damage), and changes in the proteins that carry lipids and cholesterol through the body that make them less able to offload those cholesterol and fat molecules into the cells where they’re needed. This leaves them roaming the blood, continuing to get damaged, and can increase the risk of them accumulating in damaged arteries.
  • Blood sugar spikes also cause insulin spikes. Insulin is a vital hormone produced by the pancreas – and is necessary for life (hence why those with type 1 diabetes must take insulin because they cannot produce it). Insulin’s primary role in the body is acting as the key that allows glucose from the blood into the cells where it can be used for energy. If this doesn’t happen properly, the sugar stays in the blood for too long, causing inflammation and blood vessel damage. Sugar is actually toxic when too high. Insulin allows glucose into the cell and tells the cell to convert it to fat if the energy is not immediately needed. This means insulin is a FAT STORAGE hormone – meaning you’ll be far more likely to pack on fat than you will be able to burn fat. With elevated insulin levels over time, the cells throughout the body become less responsive to the presence of insulin, so the body initially produces more and more, but eventually loses the capacity to produce enough.
  • Elevations in fat in your blood. This surprisingly is NOT about eating dietary fat. The fat in your blood is mostly driven by how many carbohydrates you eat. Those carbohydrates get converted to glucose, then go from the digestive system to the liver. In the liver, some of this glucose is converted to glycogen for the storage of sugar. However, we can only store so much glycogen. Any excess gets converted to triglycerides for storage. This storage can occur right in the liver (contributing to fatty liver) or can be shipped throughout the body for storage in any tissue.
  • Poor stress management. Stress causes alterations in stress hormones, increases inflammation, and increases blood sugar. Think about it – stress is your body perceiving a threat. Historically, this threat would have been a risk of death. Something you need to flee from or fight. Either would have required energy. Therefore the body releases a rush of sugar for immediate use. However, today, we more often sit and stew in our stress from finances, relationships, traffic, work, etc…we don’t actually need any extra energy. But we don’t have control over that part. It’s an automatic response when we perceive stress. And this perception can be just that – the IMAGINATION of stress. Worrying about something can still cause this – even if it never actually happens! Do your best to reduce stress, eliminate as many toxic relationships as possible, and try to live in the NOW so you aren’t adding to the stress by worrying about things that haven’t happened or already happened.
  • Insufficient quality and/or quality of sleep. Sleep is one of those often overlooked categories of health. Most of us know we’ve done poorly with sleep when we feel sleepy or we know we didn’t get enough sleep for whatever reason. However, a huge portion of the population aren’t getting adequate amounts of sufficient quality sleep. Only about 5% of the population has the genetic profile to function properly on less than 6 hours of sleep. Studies have shown between half and two-thirds of the population are not getting sufficient sleep. The problems with inadequate sleep are numerous – poorer immune function, decreased energy and strength, increased blood sugar levels, reduced inhibitions around food, decreased metabolism, decreased appetite, reduced weight loss, reduced capacity to manage blood sugar levels, altered hormone levels, decreased focus and concentration, reduced memory and ability to learn complex skills, and reduced emotional resilience. The bottom line – inadequate sleep is directly contributing to an increased risk of chronic disease.
  • Exercise – both too little and too much. Both a sedentary life and overtraining are stressful on the body. We need to move. We need to work our muscles. But we don’t have to run marathons or do extreme workouts. Walking, jogging, lifting weights, yoga, dancing, even gardening, housework, cooking…anything physical that requires movement is good. Strive to stand instead of sit, walk instead of stand, and increase resistance against gravity as much as you can (stairs, hills, lifting).
There are many more factors involved with unhealthy metabolic function and we will dive deeper into many of them in upcoming episodes where we’re going to talk about various conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, thyroid disorders, and even cancer.


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