I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “metabolism”, it is usually associated with “weight loss” or “diet” or some sort of disorder. But what is metabolism?
Metabolism is all the chemical reactions that happen on a cellular level in our bodies to produce energy, encourage growth, and eliminate waste. Metabolism includes taking the foods that we eat and converting them into the basic elements to use as energy: amino acids, fatty acids, nucleic acids, sugars.
Our cells are not the only organisms using these basic elements, though. We host an ecosystem of microorganisms in our gut that thrive on the foods that we eat and in turn provide us with vitamins, support our immune health, help metabolize “toxins”, and influence our mood and behaviors.
We also have certain organs in our body that affect our metabolism.
The pancreas is a key organ that regulates carbohydrate metabolism. The pancreas secretes insulin which signals the cells to take in sugars circulating in the blood stream. If those sugars are not used by the cells (i.e., there are too many), insulin signals the body to store the excess as fat. If our body needs more sugars, the pancreas releases glucagon to increase the amount of circulating sugars in the blood stream.
The liver oversees the processing of lipids (fats) and amino acids (the building blocks of protein) from the small intestine. The liver is also essential for the processing and elimination of toxins in our body. Dysfunction in the liver can lead to metabolic disorders and changes in the metabolism of certain medications (leading to an increased risk for toxicity and side effects).
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland, located in the neck that is essential for controlling our metabolic rate. Thyroid hormones regulate heat and energy production, tissue repair and development, appetite and movement/digestion of food, and sensitivity of muscle and nerve cells.
Someone with an overactive thyroid gland might have symptoms like nervousness, anxiety, increased sweating, fine brittle hair, weak muscles, and unexplained weight loss. An underactive thyroid gland would have the opposite effects: depression, weight gain, rough, dry skin, poor circulation (always cold), reduced heart rate, and fluid retention.
The thyroid gland is also responsible for increasing the number of mitochondria in the body. Mitochondria are the energy producing organelles in every cell in our body. Mitochondrial health is essential to our metabolic health. Mitochondria can be damaged by oxidative stress (free radicals), which can lead to premature cell death. If too many cells die prematurely, this can lead to metabolic dysfunction, chronic diseases and ultimately organ failure.
Our mitochondria require certain vitamins, minerals, and other cofactors to function at their best. Vitamins like B-vitamins, lipoic acid, selenium, coenzyme Q10, and carnitine are just some of the cofactors our energy-producing mitochondria need to function. Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E can help to protect our mitochondrial function and increase our metabolic rate.
So, how can we help our mitochondria (and incidentally the gut microbiome)?
Intermittent Fasting: There are many ways to use intermittent fasting to benefit the body and our natural rhythms. Time-restricted eating is one of the easiest methods of intermittent fasting. Time-restricted eating is only consuming food within a specified shortened window. For instance, only eating for an 8-hour period during the day and not eating for 16 hours. There are also methods of alternate-day fasting. Fast one day, eat the next, and so on. Or eating for 5 days, then fasting for 2.
Research is continuing to investigate our body’s response to these types of metabolic stressors from fasting or reduced intake of food. They have found that mimicking the Hunter-Gatherer design of feast or famine using intermittent fasting can help optimize mitochondrial function, eliminate poor performing cells, and create new cells and new mitochondria.
Of course, it is important to choose nutrient dense, high-quality foods when eating on an intermittent fasting plan. Foods need to be anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic, high-quality fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates.
Exercise: Exercise uses our muscles, which requires energy. Energy that is produced by…mitochondria in the muscle cells. By exercising regularly, you are teaching your muscle cells that they need to increase the number of mitochondria, because you require more energy. Even something simple as walking every day can start to increase the number of mitochondria needed. An increase in mitochondria can also help with burning energy even when you aren’t moving (increasing your metabolism).
Cold Exposure: There have been some studies that show stressing your body with extreme temperatures (cold and hot) can increase the number and quality of mitochondria in your cells. Brief exposure to extreme cold helps the body to clean house and remove cells that are damaged or not functioning optimally. Simply switching the last few minutes of your shower to cold can show some benefit.
Food is Medicine: Remember how I said that our mitochondria require certain co-factors to function optimally? Where do those co-factors come from? You guessed it! FOOD!
Antioxidants help to reduce damage to our mitochondria by free radicals. Blueberries (and other berries), citrus fruits, sweet peppers and pomegranate contain many antioxidants that can protect our cells.
B-vitamins are essential for our bodies. Many B-vitamins are produced by our gut-microbiome, so taking care of our gut health is so important. Grass-fed beef, buffalo, and other wild game are full of B-vitamins. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.), spinach, seeds (pumpkin, flax, sunflower, etc.), nuts, and eggs also have B-vitamins.
Sulfur-rich vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens are great detoxifiers and help to remove toxins in our body that can damage our cells and mitochondrial function.
Fats are not the enemy we think they are. Good fats containing lots of Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our cells to function. Olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil are great fats to include in your diet. Fatty fish is also important. This includes salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring.
Magnesium is also essential for our mitochondria to make energy. Avocado, spinach, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, as well as legumes contain magnesium.
Overall, for your metabolism to function the way it was intended, the same rules apply. Eliminate processed foods and fast foods. Reduce sugar intake. Increase vegetable and fruit servings at every meal. Choose nutrient-dense whole foods. Get regular exercise and maybe try intermittent fasting.
Are you ready to PIVOT to functional health and wellness?