When we think of metabolism and metabolic health, our minds immediately rush to the concept of weight. We traditionally look at weight as a marker of metabolism and assume that if we are in the correct body mass index (BMI) range, our health is top-notch. However, metabolism and metabolic health are so much more than that.
Our food choices, genes, microbiome, sleep, exercise, age and sex all shape our metabolism and metabolic health. To understand the depth of metabolic health and the metabolic health crisis, it is first imperative to understand the meaning of and difference between metabolism, metabolic health and metabolic syndrome.
- Metabolic health is when the body has ideal levels of five parameters—blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure and waist circumference—without the use of medicines,
- The decline in metabolic health can be attributed to poor nutrition, stress and anxiety, inactivity, lack of sleep, late-night eating and environmental pollutants,
- Metabolic health can be improved by exercising regularly, eating nutritious food, improving sleep, being mindful and practising deep breathing.
What are metabolism and metabolic health?
Metabolism is a series of chemical processes taking place in every cell that help convert the calories we eat into fuel that can be used and stored as energy to keep us alive.
This life-sustaining process helps repair and restore the body, giving it energy when it is required. Metabolic health is when the body, as a result of metabolism, has ideal levels of five parameters—blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure and waist circumference—without the use of medicines. It represents how well the body converts fuel into usable energy.
If the body fails to run this process efficiently, it causes several conditions such as brain fog, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity and many more, depending on the region where the cells have been affected.
When two or more of the metabolic health parameters go haywire at the same time, it is called metabolic syndrome, making the person metabolically unhealthy and increasing their chance of developing type 2 diabetes or serious heart conditions if not treated.
What is the metabolic health crisis?
The metabolic health crisis is a chronic problem ravaging the world. With the rates of obesity and diabetes going up in countries around the globe, the problem is becoming more severe than ever before.
A person is considered metabolically unhealthy if they have three or more of the following problems:
- A waistline of 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men
- Fasting blood glucose levels above 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol levels are less than 40 mg/dL in men and less than 50 mg/dL in women
- Triglyceride levels above 150 mg/dL
- Blood pressure of 130/85 or higher (this is, however, also dependent on age)
Metabolic dysfunctions, such as a change in the parameters listed above, cause obesity by interfering with the body’s ability to expend energy stored in the form of fat.
Although obesity is an important marker for this metabolic health crisis, other markers, particularly changes in glucose levels, are a serious cause for concern since poor metabolic health usually follows most of these dysfunctions.
Each dysfunction adversely impacts the body and mind, causing potentially life-threatening conditions. Countries are seeing a massive rise in cases of diabetes, obesity, cholesterol, heart diseases and so on.
According to WHO, 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, and 1.5 million deaths are attributed to diabetes each year. In 2016, 1.9 billion people worldwide were overweight, with 650 million being obese.
Most of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight and obese kills more people than malnourishment. These staggering numbers only prove that this problem is snowballing, and if nothing is done, the repercussions could be catastrophic and far-ranging.
What is causing the decline of metabolic health?
The rapid change in lifestyles caused by increasing work hours, stress and multiple other factors has led to a drastic decline in metabolic health, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The 7 causes of this sudden metabolic health crisis can be specifically attributed to a few factors:
- Poor nutrition: Highly processed and sugary foods are now easily available and are highly addictive. These poor food choices are leading to obesity, along with less-than-ideal HDL cholesterol levels, higher blood glucose levels and higher triglyceride levels. Additionally, those who are eating relatively healthier foods are still not getting the right nutrients. That’s because some cultures, for instance, inherently eat more carbohydrates as part of their diet with very little balance of fibre and proteins.
- Stress and anxiety:Stress and anxiety are major causes of the metabolic syndrome. When stress increases, the adrenal gland releases a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol stimulates the production of glucose in the body to make the body ready to either fight or flee a situation. When cortisol production is in excess, enough insulin needs to be produced to help absorb the extra glucose. Over time, your body’s cells do not absorb glucose efficiently, leading to insulin resistance. As a result, you not only have an excess amount of glucose circulating in the body, but you are also likely to gain weight as a by-product of the imbalance.
- Lack of sleep: Research suggests that lack of sleep may increase the risk of developing diabetes and obesity due to dysregulation of glucose, insulin and appetite. When we sleep, the body rests and repairs itself, getting rid of all the toxins in the body. If you are sleep deprived, the production of the hormones in charge of regulating appetite—leptin and ghrelin—gets distorted. This leads to an increase in appetite, causing more weight gain. Additionally, lack of sleep can also trigger the release of cortisol, adding to the problem of obesity. Studies have shown that people who sleep less than 6 hours a day are more likely to develop serious and chronic diseases.
- Sedentary lifestyle: With more desk and work-from-home jobs, the number of hours people are sitting has increased. This inactivity has exacerbated obesity and caused a decline in metabolic health because the calories taken in are higher than the overall calorie expenditure. The surplus energy is stored as fat and causes several problems.
- Environmental pollutants: Pollution in the environment has caused significant damage to our DNA. It leads to inflammation in our bodies, impairing our metabolic health. Studies have found that exposure to particulate matter triggers pulmonary and systemic inflammation, leading to chronic problems such as cardiovascular diseases and other cardiopulmonary diseases.
- Late-night eating:Eating food late at night can increase weight, insulin resistance and cholesterol. Studies have shown both late-night eating and snacking post meals at night were associated with a higher BMI. Both men and women displayed higher abdominal fat and higher chances of metabolic syndrome if they ate late at night. Glucose levels post dinner is higher than glucose levels post lunch or any other meal in the day. If there is little to no gap between bedtime and the last meal and there is no physical activity at night, the circulating glucose in the body is high, leading to greater insulin resistance and a higher propensity for weight gain.
What can we do to understand our current situation and improve our overall metabolic health?
Most metabolic health parameters can be measured through simple blood tests. However, these tests are usually done either after a person reaches a certain age or displays symptoms of a certain health condition. To understand metabolic health conditions that are less visible, it is advisable to get devices that offer real-time insights into your blood glucose levels, such as continuous glucose monitoring devices (CGMs).
These devices give detailed insights into an individual based on their lifestyle. Wearable devices can help you understand your food intake, activity levels and metabolic health and improve it.
We can boost our metabolic health by doing the following things:
- Focusing on nutrition: Cutting highly processed and sugary foods is the first step towards improving metabolic health. To take it a step further, focus on eating in a metabolically healthy way. This means preventing glucose spikes and crashes or insulin resistance. Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole foods, fibre, fats and protein in your diet to regulate glucose levels and prevent insulin resistance. Foods such as nuts, seeds, fish, legumes and black beans are great for keeping all metabolic health parameters in check. Do keep track of calories for everything you intake.
- Getting moving: Movement is one of the best ways to get metabolically healthy. Not only does moving help reduce weight, it also helps improve metabolic rate (amount of energy the body expends over a period of time), prevents cardiovascular disease and regulates insulin and cholesterol. WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. Low-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, is the best way to improve metabolic health and reduce stress. High-intensity exercise can also improve metabolic health, but care should be taken to ensure it is not done often to prevent the stress caused to the body by over-exerting the muscles.
- Improving sleep: We’ve seen how sleep deprivation can impact the body and mind. A good night’s rest helps the body repair itself and remove toxins. Adults should ideally get at least 7 hours of sleep to help their bodies get rid of all the toxins. Proper sleep will prevent cortisol spikes caused due to sleep deprivation. Building good sleep habits like sleeping in a dark room, making sure not to use electronics before you sleep and ensuring you eat your meals early enough are some of the ways sleep can help keep your metabolism in check.
- Practicing mindfulness: Heightened emotions keep the body in an unhealthy level of stress, impairing the body’s cognitive abilities. Mindfulness is a great tool to help reduce stress levels. It brings the mind back to the present moment, allowing the mind to stay focused and less emotional. Since stress is one of the major causes of declining metabolic health, mindfulness is a good way to boost metabolic health. Additionally, mindfulness and meditation help improve mental health problems such as mild depression and anxiety by helping combat their symptoms. These concerns are often linked to changes in metabolic health due to a change in lipid profiles.
- Deep breathing: According to Harvard Health, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing quell stress. Breathing properly and deeply stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the body’s rest and digesting function. This helps the body improve its metabolic rate while also lowering heart rate and stabilizing blood pressure.
Our metabolic health depends on five optimal markers without medication—blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure and waist circumference. The world is seeing a fast decline in metabolic health and a rapid increase in cases of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many more lifestyle-related diseases. This sudden change can be attributed to poor nutrition, stress and anxiety, physical inactivity, lack of sleep and environmental pollutants. A simple blood test or a continuous glucose monitoring device can help you understand and keep track of your metabolic health. Once you’re more aware of the workings of your body, it is easy to improve your metabolic health by exercising regularly, eating the right nutrients, improving sleep, being mindful and practising deep breathing.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.
- Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016
- The Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation – PMC
- Are US adults reporting less sleep?: Findings from sleep duration trends in the National Health Interview Survey, 2004–2017 | SLEEP | Oxford Academic
- Metabolic Syndrome and Air Pollution: A Narrative Review of Their Cardiopulmonary Effects – PMC
- Association of night eating habits with metabolic syndrome and its components: a longitudinal study – PMC