While there has been no shortage of information surrounding the Covid_19 virus, metabolic health may have slipped by your radar. Understanding what it is and why you might want to take notice, is worth exploring.
In order to comprehend the importance of good metabolic health we have to look first at the negative side, specifically Metabolic Syndrome (MetS). This post digs a little deeper into the following four areas of metabolic health.*
- Definition of metabolic syndrome
- Root causes
- Ways to improve metabolic health
- Relationship to fitness, particularly resistance training
*Caveat, all material in this blog is grossly generalized to provide a platform to raise awareness, encourage dialogue and build a larger picture of the vitalness of “total health’ for Pilates’ and fitness enthusiasts. It is not medical advice.
Metabolic Syndrome (MetS) also called Syndrome X or Metabolic Insulin Resistance Syndrome is a collection of certain health markers that define your body’s metabolic health. In general, MetS as defined by the WHO (World Health Organization) is a pathologic condition characterized by abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia.
The five components of MetS are below, which if you have 2 to 3 or more of the following means having the condition, simply said your body’s metabolic processes are not functioning optimally. Some might argue even 1 characteristic can compromise overall health.
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Excessive waist circumference
- High Triglycerides
- Low HDL Cholesterol
Why is this important?
In relation to the current world issue of Covid_19, if you have underlying chronic conditions and or poor metabolic health you are at a greater risk not only for getting the virus but for having severe complications if you contract it. Here’s a short video with Dr. Aseem Maholtra, a cardiologist from the UK explaining exactly that issue.
While it is very hard to find global numbers on the precise number of citizens with MetS, it is known that 88% of Americans have poor metabolic health. And as stated on the National Center for Biotechnology Information over a billion globally are estimated to be affected.
“We do not have similar global data on metabolic syndrome—which is harder to measure, but since MetS is about three times more common than diabetes, the global prevalence can be estimated to be about one quarter of the world population. In other words, over a billion people in the world are now affected with metabolic syndrome.”
Beyond the virus, if your metabolic health is not optimal, you’re at greater risk for developing other diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary diseases, stroke, and other disabilities. And as mentioned above puts you at greater risk for viruses. Thus, quality of life as well as longevity can be negatively impacted.
What are root causes?
While one recognizes that all issues related to the human body are a mix of internal and external factors that determine our overall health. We’re a complex machine involving our genetic background, socio-economic status, lifestyle choices and many other factors. Just for purposes here let’s say its’ 30% uncontrollable and 70% lifestyle choices. Working on that 70% could provide a high return on the investment. (see post on physical investment)
When it comes to metabolic health two major influencers are, nutrition and exercise. Finding a nutritional path that works for you requires patience and a willingness to change. Why change you ask? What worked for your body at one age may not work for you at a later stage in life. Recognizing what offers the highest performance, in daily life and beyond should guide your nutritional choices. See post here on food for performance not punishment or reward.
Impact of sugar/carbohydrates on blood glucose and insulin
It doesn’t matter what type of food path you follow, Low-Carb, Keto, Vegetarian, Paleo or the guidelines from your country of origin, most will agree cutting back on sugar is a good idea. What is important to note is that both sugar and carbohydrates can impair metabolic processes, due to their negative impact on blood glucose and insulin.
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fat, its’ the carbohydrates that put the greatest stress and load in raising blood glucose. You might have experienced what is called the sugar crash, either from too many sweets and or too much pasta. You eat those items; blood sugar goes up, the “high” and then not too long after comes the “crash” the infamous blood glucose spike.
While protein has a moderate effect on blood glucose it is much more nuanced and over a longer period of time and similarly but even less with fat, which has a very low impact. Think of it like three curves, carbs are one big sharp mountain, protein a moderate-size hill and fat a low sloping road. Virta Health has an excellent visual on the relationship between the three macronutrients and blood glucose levels here.
Overtime if the body is stressed continually by high blood glucose and high insulin you will develop Type 2 Diabetes. However, this can take some time to develop and any steps you take early on to keep insulin and blood glucose low is a positive action for your metabolic health.
Relating this back to the five characteristics of MetS listed at the start, the characteristics are very intertwined. High blood glucose leads to higher triglycerides putting extra stress and creating more inflammation in the body. Additionally:
“There’s no debate: insulin resistance and high blood pressure are related. When patients consistently have both, that’s evidence of a clear association, and almost all people with hypertension are insulin resistant.”
Benjamin Bikman, PhD, author and expert in metabolic disorders
High blood glucose is particularly related to excess body fat, when levels are high your body is in fat storage mode. The opposite is in the fasted state (like during sleep or nutritional ketosis) when the body is using either its’ own fat stores or ketones produced by the body. Fat (lipids) need to be stored somewhere and often end up causing excess fat around your middle (abdominal fat) or more dangerous, the fat gets stored around your organs (visceral fat).
Important is that you do not necessarily need to be overweight/obese and be under metabolic stress. An example of that is the TOFI phenotype, thin on the outside fat on the inside.
While BMI is often used to determine a so-called healthy weight, many experts are now leaning away from BMI as a marker and looking to waist size and or waist to hip ratio. You can calculate your waist to hip ratio here online and ‘estimate” your current status.
What can you do about it?
First and foremost is lower the intake of foods which raise your blood sugar, carbohydrates and sugar. Second, is exercise, specifically resistance training promotes a high level of blood glucose utilization.
Again Benjamin Bikman, PhD states:
“There is benefit to any type of exercise, whether aerobic or resistance, though resistance training may offer a greater improvement in insulin sensitivity for the time spent.”
I highly recommend his book, a phenomenal read. BIkman carefully unpacks the whole story on insulin and how an insulin resistant body, often undiagnosed till too late, severely impacts your health over the long term.
What is resistance training?
I go much more in depth on the role and benefits of resistance training (RT) here.
A brief overview of three main types of RT:
- Free weights: Dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, bricks, bottles of water or any other type of outside weight
- Own body weight: Isometric exercises and conditioning methods like Calisthenics, Functional Movement, Pilates and others
- Machines: Lat pulley, chest press, leg press, etc. usually named for the area of the body utilized with a host of brand names such as Nautilus, Universal etc.
Basically, the reason RT has such a positive effect of glucose utilization is there are over 600 muscles in the body and the skeletal muscle system is a large depot for glucose. By exhausting your muscles and a large portion of them in strenuous exercise, you help to deplete those stores.
“Beyond the obvious important role that skeletal muscle plays in locomotion, it is also a critically important tissue in maintaining health. Skeletal muscle is active tissue. It burns a tremendous amount of lipid, stores the majority of ingested glucose, and is a significant contributor to metabolic rate (BMR). As such, one can easily appreciate how important it is to maintain a large and metabolically active skeletal muscle mass.”
In summary, you can’t exercise away a poor diet. And all lifestyle efforts should be to maximize your body’s ability to use fuel efficiently. If you are constantly overloading it with excess sugar and carbohydrates, you are impairing hormonal and metabolic processes from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
The body is simply amazing and like many aspects of life, optimization sometimes requires stepping back and removing the obstacles. Less is truly more.
May 2021 bring you plenty of strength and energy!