Metabolic health is something that affects nearly every aspect of your life. Your body depends on nutrients to produce energy to be active throughout the day. However, many Americans struggle with having a healthy metabolism. Fortunately, there are a few key factors at play that can easily take your metabolic health from average to stellar.
Metabolic health is defined as the absence of metabolic syndrome, though it is truly dependent on insulin sensitivity.
Metabolic disorders contribute to cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and obesity.
Preventable lifestyle factors contribute to common metabolic disorders, such as type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Fiber intake, gut-microbiota-targeted interventions, and exercise can help protect your hormone health and optimize your metabolism.
What is metabolic health?
Traditionally, metabolic health is the absence of metabolic syndrome. Historically, it wasn't easy to precisely diagnose metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is “a group of defined metabolic and physical abnormalities.” Major risk factors include weight gain with visceral obesity or fat around the abdomen.
Metabolic syndrome, or MetS, is a conglomerate of symptoms hallmarked by one main symptom: insulin resistance. Hyperinsulinemia, or elevated insulin, is the “common denominator” of MetS.
Additionally, other signs of metabolic syndrome are:
- Elevated blood glucose
- Increased triglycerides
- Decreased HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
- Glucose intolerance
- Abdominal obesity
Waist circumference is more reliable for predicting metabolic-related cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a less sensitive indicator concerning metabolic disorder diagnosis in a clinical setting.
Who is at risk of metabolic syndrome?
In the U.S., 34% of adults have metabolic syndrome. Older age and male sex are two risk factors for the disorder. In addition, metabolic syndrome is a risk factor for:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Certain types of cancer
A 2001 National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III report defined how to diagnose metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is likely if three out of five cardio metabolic risk factors are present. These risk factors include:
- Having a lot of fat around the abdomen
- A high fasting blood glucose
- High blood pressure
- High triglyceride levels
- Lower levels of healthy cholesterol (HDL)
Common metabolic disorders
- Type 2 diabetes. Nearly one in ten Americans have type 2 diabetes. Risk factors include family history, being overweight or obese, low HDL cholesterol levels (the “healthy” cholesterol), high triglyceride levels, and polycystic ovary syndrome. Fortunately, a healthy lifestyle is a preventative factor in type 2 diabetes. Healthy lifestyle changes include a higher fiber diet, exercise, quitting smoking if you smoke, and weight management.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. NAFD is a metabolic-associated liver disease. NAFLD occurs in people who drink little to no alcohol. When too much fat is stored in the liver, more fat is concentrated around the abdomen. About a quarter of Americans have NAFLD. It is most prevalent in Western nations, where high-fat and high-sugar foods dominate the typical diet. Prevent or reverse NAFLD with weight management, a healthy diet, and adequate exercise.
Both type 2 diabetes and NAFLD depict common factors of metabolic disease. These disorders illustrate the compounding effects of health interventions on metabolism. For some conditions, like NAFLD, effective health interventions may make symptoms disappear.
Increasing metabolic health
Robust metabolic health manifests in several ways. Non-modifiable factors which predict better metabolic health include female gender and younger age. Modifiable factors for metabolic health include never smoking, frequent vigorous exercise, and a lower BMI. A higher level of education may also lead to better metabolic health outcomes.
A few core signs of metabolic health include:
- Healthy cholesterol levels
- A smaller waistline
- A consistent blood glucose level
- A healthy blood pressure
Optimizing your metabolism means focusing on diet, gut health, exercise, and weight management.
Obesity, hormones, and the ghrelin connection
Gut health plays a major role in regulating metabolism. The key is hormonal balance. Hormones rule gut health by producing optimum levels of crucial gut hormones, such as ghrelin.
Ghrelin is a gut hormone that sends hunger signals to your brain. Ghrelin controls insulin release, an essential hormone in metabolic health. Hunger cues by ghrelin propel you to consume more and aid in fat storage. While this can be good in times of famine, it does not help optimize your metabolic health.
Extra fat stores from the over-production of ghrelin contribute to obesity, a risk factor for poor metabolic health. Stress, especially chronic stress, also contributes to the over-production of ghrelin. People who are obese may have lower levels of ghrelin, making them more sensitive to this hunger-stimulating hormone.
Exercise and hormones
Exercise is vital in regulating your metabolism. Metabolic health relies upon hormonal balance. Hormones affect core bodily processes, including metabolism. When you exercise, hormone receptors become more sensitive because there is more blood flow to these receptors. More blood flow also equates to more nutrients to hormone receptors, ensuring they are well-nourished.
Exercise is proven to increase insulin sensitivity in muscles. This is vital to reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity, two risk factors for poor metabolic health. Exercise also boosts metabolism, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
Make sure to include rest days between vigorous exercise to optimize your metabolic health. Keep in mind that overexercising can lead to elevated cortisol and increased stress on your body. Therefore, rest days are vital to reduce stress while still getting maximum benefits from your workouts.
Can you optimize your metabolism with fiber?
Studies show that a diet high in fiber fosters optimal metabolic health. There is an inverse relationship between high fiber intake and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. Fiber increases the time of intestinal absorption, aiding nutrient absorption. This, in turn, increases the health of your gut biome.
Eating fiber reduces rates of cardio metabolic syndrome and cancer. Soluble fiber actually decreases the amount of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, the “less-healthy”) cholesterol. The phytochemical properties of the fiber are in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Bioactive components of fiber consist of essential resistant starches, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Short-chain fatty acids, found after longer digestion periods in the large intestine, occur when the body digests fiber. Because of how long it takes to digest, fiber skips the small intestine, instead preferring to digest slowly in the large intestine. The slowed digestion produces anti-carcinogenic properties, which protect against cancer. Unsurprisingly, a diet high in fiber reduces the prevalence of colorectal, small intestine, oral, larynx, and breast cancers.
The importance of gut health
Gut health is one proven way to ensure metabolic health. Studies over the last two decades confirm the importance of gut microflora in metabolic health. The microorganisms and microflora in your gut, also known as the “microbiota,” contribute to the metabolic health of the “human host.” The “host” of these floras is your gut!
Your gut is essentially an ecosystem that hosts trillions of microbes to form these “microbiota.” The gut microbiome can either contribute to healthy metabolism or the pathology of common metabolic diseases.
In the case of humans, the microbiome approach focuses on three factors:
- The environment. How you eat, exercise, and live.
- The microbiome. The microbiota, which is influenced by what you eat and your environment.
- The host. Your gut and gastrointestinal tract.
Managing gut health
Managing metabolic health is best done through microbiota-targeted interventions. For example, evidence reveals how polyphenols suppress pathogenic bacteria and assist helpful bacteria. The prebiotic properties of polyphenols have proven health effects in humans. Antioxidant-rich polyphenols are found in:
Vitamins and minerals also contribute to gut health. Conversely, a high-fat diet harms gut microbiota. This is because higher fat content depletes microbial abundance. Therefore, it's imperative to focus on nutritional intake when it comes to metabolic optimization.
Optimizing gut health through diet and nutrition is one fundamental way to bio-hack your metabolism. When managing weight and reducing risk factors, pair nutrition with exercise for bolstered metabolic health. Focusing on fiber, your gut microbiota, and exercise are proven ways to maximize your metabolic health and feel the best in your body.
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