“Metabolism” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but is often not well understood.
In each cell in your body, there are continuous chemical reactions that keep the cell alive and functioning. These chemical reactions generate energy, produce building blocks to replace worn-out parts or create new cells, and create other substances that your body uses to operate and regulate itself. The collection of these chemical processes is called your metabolism.
Energy is involved in every one of these processes, and so the word metabolism is often thought of as the rate at which your body uses energy. But that is only one aspect of those chemical reactions.
When cellular chemical reactions are proceeding normally and effectively, your metabolism is healthy. A healthy metabolism provides energy for the things you want to do, strengthens your immune system, and efficiently extracts and uses nutrients from the food you eat.
Unfortunately, though, healthy metabolisms are becoming scarcer in the civilized world. And when metabolic health is poor, the person may run low on energy, get sick more easily, heal more slowly, and not assimilate nutrients efficiently. There are also other, more dire, consequences, because poor metabolic health is known to be a precursor to heart disease, stroke, or diabetes—leading causes of debilitation and death.
Over the past few decades, scientists have learned that there are five clear signs of poor metabolic health:
- Large waist circumference
- High blood pressure
- High blood glucose
- High levels of triglycerides
- Low levels of HDL cholesterol
The simultaneous presence of three or more of these symptoms, OR of the need for medication to control them, is known as “metabolic syndrome.”
At this point you may be thinking, “How do I avoid metabolic syndrome, or reverse it if I have it? What causes it?”
Those are the right questions, because the drugs that are prescribed to manage the above symptoms—blood pressure medications, statins, diabetes medications, etc.—do exactly that: manage the symptoms. That may be essential because the symptoms themselves can be dangerous, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problems related to the reactions that are happening in your cells.
What can you do to improve your underlying metabolic health? There’s not space here to fully answer that question, but here’s a place to start: it’s widely recognized that metabolic syndrome is very often associated with a condition called insulin resistance, which is reduced sensitivity in your body to the action of the hormone insulin. Insulin, you probably know, is the hormone that’s responsible for, among other things, managing the level of glucose in your blood (blood sugar). When you have insulin resistance, your body needs to produce an excess of insulin to control that blood sugar. And your levels of insulin and blood sugar are intimately connected to the chemical reactions that occur in your cells.