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By Danielle Omar, RDN
If you’re reading this, you probably want to improve your metabolism. And you may not even realize it’s something you can change. But, it is. There are several things you can do to improve your metabolic health. It starts with understanding metabolic flexibility.
In today's modern world, we have unlimited access to food. We don’t even have to leave the house; we can order food from our smart phone and have it delivered straight to our front door. There are drive-thru restaurants on almost every corner.
We’ve also been told we have to snack throughout the day to keep our blood sugar stabilized (which simply isn’t true.)
We’ve turned into a society that eats all day long, and it’s affected our metabolic health.
Let’s talk about metabolic flexibility and how it affects your health. As well as what you can do to improve your metabolic health overall.
What is Metabolic Flexibility
Metabolic Flexibility is your body's ability to shift between fuel sources efficiently. Think of it like a hybrid car: sometimes it runs on gas, sometimes it runs on electricity, and sometimes it runs on both. It chooses which fuel source to use based on what is available.
When you’re metabolically flexible, your body does the same thing. It easily switches between fat and sugar storages for fuel. If you go a few hours without food, your body adapts by burning fat for energy. You don’t need snacks to “keep your blood sugar up.”
The Standard American Diet (SAD) has made many of us metabolically inflexible. This means your metabolism stays predominately in “sugar burning” mode. Your body has lost its ability to access and burn body fat for fuel and it’s become over-reliant on sugar for energy. To use the car analogy: it’s like gas-burning cars – they only use one fuel source.
When you are metabolically flexible, you don’t have to eat all day long to maintain energy or healthy blood sugar levels. Your body is able to adapt to the energy sources that are available. You also don’t have constant food or sugar cravings. You have more satiety between meals and don’t have to snack all day long to ward off hunger.
Metabolical flexibility allows you to:
- Go hours without eating and not get “hangry”
- Wake up in the morning and not needing to eat immediately
- Have less sugar and carbohydrate cravings
- Better able to maintain your weight
- Lower your risk for developing metabolic syndrome
- Become more insulin sensitive
- Improve sleep quality
You can’t really talk about metabolic flexibility without also talking about glucose metabolism and metabolic health. They are the key players that drive metabolic flexibility.
What is Metabolism?
You might hear someone say they have a slow or fast metabolism, but what does that mean?
Metabolism describes the process our body uses to make energy from the food we eat. Our food is made up of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. During digestion, we use chemicals to break down the food we eat into sugars and acids. This is our body's fuel. We can either use this fuel right away or we can store it in the liver, muscle, and fat cells for later use.
Your Resting Metabolic Rate is the number of calories your body burns at rest in a 24-hour period. This number is affected by gender, age, hormones, genetics, body size/weight, body fat, diet, hydration, physical activity level, medication, sleep patterns, stress, environment, and illness.
Many of the factors that affect our metabolism can be controlled with lifestyle interventions. Our diet, sleep quality, stress response, and physical activity can positively affect our metabolism and increase metabolic flexibility.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that affect how we metabolize the food we eat. The condition is characterized by the presence of any three of the following metabolic risk factors:
- Waistline circumference greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women
- Triglyceride levels over 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg per dL) or greater
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol that is less than 40 mg per dL in men or less than 50 mg per dL in women
- Fasting blood glucose (blood sugar) over 100 mg per dL or greater
- Blood pressure of systolic 130 mmHg or higher and/or diastolic 85 mmHg or higher
A recent study published in the journal Current Hypertension reports that metabolic syndrome affects approximately one-third of adults in the United States. Having metabolic syndrome increases your risk for insulin resistance, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
Metabolic syndrome can be attributed to a variety of health and lifestyle factors. Risk factors for metabolic syndrome include health conditions like gallstones, fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and sleep apnea. Other risk factors include a diet high in inflammatory foods (saturated fat, trans fat, and sugar) and nutrient deficiencies (carotenoids, vitamin B, vitamin D, vitamin E). Being overweight or obese and living a sedentary lifestyle also put you at risk.
How Does Insulin Sensitivity Impact Metabolic Flexibility?
Insulin is the hormone that controls the level of sugar (or glucose) in the blood. Insulin sensitivity refers to how sensitive the body's cells are in response to insulin. Low insulin sensitivity means you may have insulin resistance. People with insulin resistance have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A key component of metabolic flexibility is insulin sensitivity, as it plays a major role in the body's ability to switch from carbohydrate to fat as a fuel source. A decrease in insulin sensitivity can be a warning sign of impaired metabolic health.
Signs and symptoms of metabolic inflexibility include:
- Sleepiness after meals
- Mid-day energy crashes (needing caffeine to boost energy)
- Feelings of anxiety or stress
- Not being able to exercise without eating
- Waking up hungry
- Not being able to go very long without eating
- Being hungry shortly after eating
Six Things You Can Do to Increase Metabolic Flexibility
- Improve Your Diet. Avoid trans fats. Skip the Standard American Diet and opt for a diet rich in whole foods. Focus on high fiber vegetables and low sugar fruit and avoid over-consuming processed carbs and sugar. Get a moderate amount of lean protein and choose healthy fats like salmon, nuts and seeds, avocado, and olive oil.
- Practice Intermittent Fasting. Eating all day long does not promote metabolic flexibility. Practice time-restricted eating or increase your overnight fast to 12-14 hours to help your body become more flexible.
- Practice Conscious Eating. Listen to your body’s hunger cues. Slow down when you’re eating and really savor your food. Understand how your body reacts to carbohydrates. Some people thrive with a lower-carb eating style, while others may do best cycling their carbohydrates throughout the week.
- Get enough exercise. Physical inactivity is the leading cause of metabolic inflexibility. Increase movement daily with a mix of cardiovascular exercise like biking, walking, running, and strength training to build muscle.
- Improve Sleep. Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and work to improve your sleep quality.
- Manage Stress. A consistent yoga or meditation practice, breathing exercises, and spending time in nature can help your body better adapt to chronic stress.
Sleep and Metabolic Flexibility
Not getting enough sleep at night (chronic sleep deprivation) and sleep apnea are both associated with the development of metabolic syndrome. Improving your sleep hygiene is an important aspect of metabolic flexibility and overall health.
Sleep can be affected by many factors, from blue light at night to eating a late dinner. If falling asleep is something you struggle with, adding FitFormula Wellness Sleep Formula to your nighttime routine can help. It’s non-habit forming and contains both melatonin and GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid). These ingredients have been shown to help with occasional insomnia, and the blueberry flavored powder dissolves instantly on the tongue or in water.
If sleep apnea is interfering with sleep quality, consider a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Research shows that treatment with a CPAP machine may improve metabolic syndrome in those with moderate to severe sleep apnea.
Metabolic flexibility can have a major impact on your energy levels, long-term health, longevity, and weight. While many people think that they have no control over their metabolism, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to improve your metabolic rate, metabolic health, and metabolic flexibility.