What is Metabolic Health?
In simple terms, Metabolism can be described as the chemical processes inside our cells that transform what we eat and drink into energy.Metabolic Health is a term used to describe how well we can generate and process this energy, which is needed for every aspect of our survival:- to grow, move, reproduce, and think. The 2 broad types of chemical reactions that make up our metabolism are:
Catabolism: The breakdown of large complex molecules within the body such as protein and fat to produce simpler molecules such as amino acids and fatty acids. Digestion of the food we eat and fat loss are 2 good examples of catabolic processes.
Anabolism: This is the opposite to catabolism. This is the construction of more complex molecules and tissues from simpler units to aid growth, repair and functionality of the body. Good examples include building new muscle, healing wounds, and gluconeogenesis (the creation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, such as stored fat).
Both processes require energy, and for our metabolism to function well, we must have good glucose regulation. Glucose is a primary precursor for energy within the body. In order to maintain healthy blood glucose levels, we must avoid lifestyle factors that cause large swings and spikes in our blood glucose, such as eating processed foods, poor sleep, a lack of physical activity and ongoing stress. Unfortunately, modern life is laden with all the things that perturb our blood glucose levels such as ultra- processed food, poor quality sleep, circadian health, chronic stress and sedentariness.
The Evolutionary Metabolic Mismatches
Our modern lifestyles are out of sync with our hunter-gatherer physiology. The way we are eating, moving, resting and interacting with our environment is the root cause of more disease, disability and death than anything else known to mankind. Spiralling rates of metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome are a clear reflection of the mismatch between how we have naturally evolved to live over millions of years, and how we are currently living. We are struggling to cope with numerous evolutionary mismatches, that have occurred as a result of rapid advancements in technology. The unintended consequences of our technological innovations are making us sicker, weaker, lonelier and unhappier. To put things into some kind of context- our lifestyles have changed more in the last 60 years, than our biology has in over 2 million years!
Because these mismatches are inflicting their damage insidiously, we seem to be adapting to living with the destruction rather than resolving it! We have normalised disease and symptoms such as obesity, hypertension digestive issues, joint pain, fatigue, low mood etc. It is surprising how many people believe that some of the most easily reversible symptoms are a normal part of getting older. The amount of pharmaceutical drugs we now consume is a reflection of how common chronic sickness has become. In the UK almost half of people over 60 are taking 5 or more drugs per day, and less than 10% are taking none at all! More than 80% of adults over 57 in the US take at least one prescription medication on a daily basis
The Burden of Metabolic Disease
Metabolic diseases are among the fastest growing health problems in the world and now touch the majority of our lives, either directly or indirectly. Staggeringly, it is estimated that over 20% of the adult population worldwide have metabolic syndrome, which is defined as a collection of the following risk factors:
- Increased body fat around the waist
- high triglycerides
- low HDL cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- high fasting blood glucose
The slow, progressive burden of metabolic disease is catches many people off guard because:
- Early signs and symptoms can be subtle, so people often put up with symptoms or take medications for long periods of time, while the disease process continues to worsen.
- Many people are simply not aware of how their day to day lifestyles are harming their metabolic health.
- Many people are just not prepared to make the necessary lifestyle changes to reverse the disease process.
- Modern society has normalised many of the symptoms of poor metabolic health, such as fat accumulation around the stomach, elevated blood pressure, tiredness, joint pain etc.
During my time as an Osteopath I have treated thousands of patients, and found that the most common ‘upstream’ contributing factor to their aches and pains is poor metabolic health. It was only when I started to make a positive impact on the diet and lifestyle of my patients, did I really begin to see a significant reduction and resolution of persistent muscle and joint pain, headaches, fatigue and digestive issues. As manual therapists, I believe we are often treating the symptoms of poor metabolic health, as opposed to tackling the root cause.
Manipulating our Primal Instincts for Profit
One of the greatest evolutionary mismatches we are now struggling with is our primal desire to eat energy-dense foods, and the constant exposure we now have to poor quality, energy-dense foods. As hunter-gatherers, energy-dense foods would have been a priority to us because we would have often not known where our next meal was coming from. We ate the most energy and nutrient dense parts of the animals we hunted, we foraged for starchy roots and tubers, and we would also risk the wrath of angry bees to gorge on their honey. In addition, the breast milk of our mothers, has hard wired us to enjoy the combination of sugar and fat.
Our modern day food landscape is mostly controlled by huge multinational businesses that are primarily driven by profit. As a reflection of their power, and motivation for profit over health, these businesses are allowed to produce and aggressively market unhealthy foods laden with refined sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, and label them as ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’. The same businesses influence scientific research, government policy and public health nutrition guidelines. They also engineer their ultra-processed foods to be hyperpalatable and actually addictive! Terminology such as craveability, snackability, bliss point and mouth feel is common language used in the food industry to describe the level of desirability their junk foods can induce. Bliss point describes the amount of salt, sugar and fat that optimizes the taste of a product, and ‘mouth feel’ describes things like the perfect crunch of a chip that will keep people eating!
The food industry knows what we like, and are happy to manipulate our primal instincts for profit. As a consequence we are becoming fatter, sicker and sadder!
It’s easy to see why many people struggle to control their body weight and overall metabolic health, when we are being constantly bombarded with temptation to eat energy-dense foods that we have been evolutionarily primed to desire. Since 1980 the rate of adult obesity has doubled across 73 countries and risen in most others. What’s even more alarming is that the rise in childhood obesity has been even greater! Globalization, increased wealth, technological change and food industrialization are all contributing to us eating more ultra-processed food than we can cope with, and also moving less than we can cope with.
On the other side of this unhappy triad is a healthcare system that is ill equipped to cope with the rising burden of lifestyle and diet-driven chronic disease. Doctors are given little to no nutrition education during their training, and very few feel confident giving nutritional guidance to their patients. More than half of patients now present to their doctors with multi-morbidity ( the co-existence of 2 or more chronic conditions), which also accounts for more than 70% of prescriptions. This increasing trend is related to both an ageing population and poor lifestyle choices.
Many people are seeking medical help with combinations of symptoms caused by poor metabolic health. Doctors are medicating the symptoms of metabolic disease but not effectively addressing the root cause. We simply cannot rely on a reactive model of allopathic medicine to repair our metabolic health, we each have to take full responsibility. This starts with establishing the self-awareness and discipline to create a healthy balance between eating for pleasure and eating for health. Unfortunately, a growing number of people are eating to medicate their minds rather than fortify their bodies. Our over consumption of refined sugar is hijacking the reward centres in our brain, and junk food carbohydrates are being consumed by many, as a kind of drug to make themselves feel better. Junk foods such as potato chips and pastries increases the release of serotonin, which helps improve mood and also affects sleep onset, pain sensitivity and blood pressure regulation.
Not only are we eating more highly processed, unhealthy and inappropriate foods than we have ever done in the history of our species, many of us are also eating at times that are inconsistent with our natural sleep/wake rhythms, living in a state of chronic stress, lacking quality sleep, recovery, and physical activity. Together these evolutionary mismatches are slowly and stealthily destroying our quality of life and metabolic health. Common signs of poor metabolic health include:
- Craving for carbohydrates and snack
- Feeling sleepy after meals
- High blood sugar.
- Lack of concentration or inability to focus.
- Increased hunger.
- Higher blood pressure.
- Struggling to lose weight
- Nausea, headache, and anxiety that disappear after taking a meal.
- A waistline of 53 inches or more.
- Increased appetite.
- Inability to diet.
- High triglyceride levels.
- Irregular menstrual cycle, specifically skipping months.
- A history of polycystic ovarian disease.
- Excessive sweating.
- A family history of obesity, diabetes, stroke, or heart disease.
We often gauge our level of health far too superficially, and in the case of metabolic health, we need to be far more diligent than just looking in the mirror. Insulin resistance, which is at the root of poor metabolic health can be present for years before we notice signs such as high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and prediabetes. A common misconception is that if we are not overweight then we are metabolically healthy. Unfortunately, many people with type 2 diabetes are not overweight and within a healthy weight range. Lean Metabolic Syndrome describes people who are not overweight but present with the collection of signs that reflect metabolic syndrome. These people appear to be slim but often have low levels of muscle mass and high levels of intra-abdominal fat around the organs which is a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Live Like your Metabolism Depends on it
Whether we regard ourselves as slim or overweight, I think it is prudent to adopt the lifestyle of someone who is trying to transform their metabolic health. This is because the ‘Gold Standard’ interventions for reversing metabolic disease are also the recipe for a happier, healthier and more successful life.
- Resistance exercise
- A diet free from refined carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods.
- Sleep Hygiene Improvement
- Cultivating Stress Resilience
Complex Health Challenges need Integrated Health Solutions
As an Osteopath, Naturopath and Personal Exercise Coach, I help guide people along a multi-faceted journey of reversing disease, resolving symptoms and transforming the way they feel and look. I combine over 15 years of experience and professional qualifications to provide a seamless transition from poor health and pain to lasting vibrant health. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix when it comes to mastering our health, however you can find multi-skilled healthcare professionals with the combination of skills and experience to guide you every step of the way.
The complex health challenges we are now experiencing as a result of our modern lifestyles, requires a multi-faceted approach. At every turn, we are being tempted to make poor decisions for our mind and body. In the environments most of us live in, it is now far easier and more convenient to make bad choices than good health choices. In response we often invest in one or 2 areas of our wellness instead of focusing on creating balance across our lifestyle. We can’t just invest in one area of our wellness and expect this to compensate for a lack of attention in another. For example, we can’t expect to achieve results by exercising heroically, and having poor sleep, high stress levels and a poor diet. This just compounds the stress and imbalance that is already present. In addition, we can’t rely on willpower to achieve balance in an environment that is constantly trying to pull us out of balance, and tempting our primal instincts to make bad choices.
We simply need to find our own personal level of harmony across a few key dimensions of our wellness- sleep, diet, stress, physical activity, and day to day habits. This is far easier than punishing ourselves with an unsustainable diet and intense exercise to try to even out, or justify, other bad habits.
An experienced Health Coach will provide you with the structure, strategy, accountability and support to make the small changes that will make a big impact. I like to work by the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle:- 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. You don’t need heroic and unsustainable effort to feel, look and perform the way nature intended, you just need a little balance and a synchronicity with your body’s natural rhythms!
If you suspect that your metabolic health may need some fine tuning, feel free to contact me here for advice and guidance. Don’t neglect yourself until you are forced to react, because this will be a bigger mountain to climb than being proactive now!
The most effective healthcare starts way before the symptoms do!