What does that mean?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition is:
- the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
- an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
Why am I referring to this word in terms of metabolism?
Reading this definition makes it quite obvious why metabolic resilience is essential. With continuous “stressors” and their effects on our bodies day to day, effects of our food and of our environment, we need to ensure our bodies’ ability to adapt.
What happens when it cannot? How does it get overwhelmed to the point that it can’t?
Is there a way to prevent this from happening? Can we reverse it?
To understand this, we first have to define some of the common “stressors” and look at their effects. These “stressors” over time, with continued insult and no checks in place, contribute to chronic disease states.
Here I will describe for you 5 common metabolic stressors, the science of how they affect our health, as well as ways to reduce the effects. I will present this blog post as 2 parts, as it gets a bit technical! In each section, I will lay out an action plan for you to work towards building metabolic flexibility- the key to adapting and recovering- the key to resilience.
1. Stress (Mental/Emotional):
The biology of stress is complicated! We were meant to successfully endure some stressful situations and have certain protective mechanisms kick in when we were faced with situations like being chased by a lion (the sympathetic nervous system, aka “fight or flight”).
Well, in today’s society, some of us find ourselves constantly being “chased by the lion”… when this stress response is present for long periods of time, it has harmful effects. The hypothalamic pituitary axis in the brain is affected, leading to dysregulation of our hormones, and even effects on the brain. Some of these effects affect aspects of brain health like memory and cognition problems (hello, brain fog!).
Hunger and satiety hormones are affected as well- this influences our metabolism and leads to fat storage. Excess fat storage (described in next section) in itself has effects on metabolism as well as on the immune system and inflammation.
It is not surprising that with the continued “revved up state”, the cardiovascular system is affected leading to high heart rate, often high blood pressure, more stress on the kidneys. There is even dysfunction at the level of the blood vessel lining leading to formation of blood clots and increased risk of thrombosis (heart attack and stroke).
Many who have experience with the effects of stress would vouch for the connection between stress and the gastrointestinal system- often leading to changes in appetite as well as inflammation, histamine release and symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome and even affects inflammatory bowel disease.
Stress often also is accompanied by coping mechanisms like food and alcohol for relief, which can make things more challenging.
How to Build Metabolic Resilience:
- Work to decrease the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight of flight system) by engaging in activities that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Examples of such activities are: breathing exercises throughout the day (ex. 4 sec “box” breathing and “4,7,8” breathing cycles), guided meditations (ex. apps like Headspace, Calm), yoga.
- Even making time routinely for hobbies, joy, and play can help you feel connected and less stressed. Engage with nature and intentionally work to reduce stress! Don’t “tough it out” because you think you can “handle it”.
2. Obesity/Excess body fat:
The condition when excess body fat itself leads to metabolic problems is referred to as adiposopathy. What are the effects and how does this happen?
When we store excess body fat, we see a series of changes occur leading to a decrease in certain circulating hormones and an increase in others. One such hormone that decreases is adiponectin.This dysregulation leads to increased production of sugar in the liver, decreased fatty acid oxidation (meaning our muscles burn less fat!), insulin resistance (increased risk for type 2 diabetes) and increased inflammation factors (immune system effects, increased risk for CV disease and even certain cancers- pancreatic, liver, endometrial and colon).
Examples of other hormones affected, like insulin,leptinand grehlin lead to increased fat storage, decreased fat utilization for energy, and increased appetite. Clearly, if you have been trying to cut calories, and then deal with excessive hunger, these factors are at play and may be making it much harder to lose weight!
Adiposopathy/obesity and its effects over time lead to mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of our cells- they take in nutrients and use them to make energy.
This dysfunction over time leads to the effects we see- less use of fat for energy, increased insulin resistance, harder time losing weight, and increased risk for type 2 diabetes. In fact, the mitochondrial content of fat tissue is lower in people with insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and severe obesity (consequently burning less energy).
How can one optimize metabolic and mitochondrial resilience? Losing body fat leads to improvement in the body’s ability to process food/energy and reduce inflammation.
How to Build Metabolic Resilience:
- A 5-10% loss of body weight (mostly fat) leads to improved fasting blood sugars, improved cholesterol profile, and lower diastolic blood pressure.
- Consider use of medication or surgery as a tool by seeking consultation with an obesity medicine specialist. As you can see from the above, often over time, it is harder and harder to lose weight with diet and exercise alone. To overcome the effects of the hormonal dysregulation and effects of hunger hormones, various medications can be a tool to use along with the essential lifestyle changes.
- Fasting & calorie restriction, in animal studies, have been shown to prolong duration of life. Fasting benefits are still being studied in humans, but so far decreased activity of a protein called mTOR has been linked to increase in a process called autophagy. This has been found to result in improved cell repair, improved mitochondrial size and function, increased fatty acid oxidation and improved insulin sensitivity. More on this next time...
In the next part of this series, I will delve into 3 more common lifestyle stressors- lack of physical activity, dietary stress and disruption of circadian rhythms. I will also make suggestions for how to build resilience in those areas- stay tuned!
As always, please not this is not medical advice. Please discuss specific health concerns and lifestyle changes with your personal physician.