When we talk about metabolism, it might not be what you’d typically think when you think of the term. When most people talk about metabolism, they’re simply referring to the total number of calories you burn in a day, and it’s usually related to weight loss and dieting.
However, metabolism is much more complicated than that because it’s not just about the number of calories you burn but also how you burn them. We typically call this bioenergetics, which basically refers to the energy systems in a biological organism.
The True Definition Of Metabolism
Metabolism is very simply the cumulative way of producing energy throughout all of the cells in your body. And while the total number of calories burned is important, it’s highly dependent on how your cells are creating that energy. This is because certain methods of creating energy spur on greater and greater amounts of energy production — signaling increased levels of health throughout the body — while other methods decrease energy output and signal the conservation of energy.
But before we dive into the three ways your cells produce energy, we first need to define exactly what energy is in the first place. The main fuels your body uses for energy production are carbohydrates and fats. When these nutrients are broken down in your cells, they create molecules of ATP, which is the most basic energy currency of all cells. Simply put, when ATP is high in the cell, that cell is in a high-energy state where all of it’s functions can run smoothly. When ATP is low in the cell, it shuts off the less vital functions in order to spare that energy for the functions critical to survival.
READ MORE: The Top 6 Signs of Slow Metabolism
In the big picture, if all of your cells are low in ATP, the cumulative effect is that your entire body is saving energy only for survival functions while shutting down the long-term, less necessary functions like growth and maintenance. There’s no need to improve the quality of your skin or grow muscle if you don’t have the energy to pump your blood or breathe. When this is the situation throughout your body, it appears on the outside as poor health and a low metabolic rate.
On the other hand, when ATP is high in all of your cells, the cumulative effect is that all of your cells can be much more liberal with their energy use, expending adequate amounts on those long-term functions. In this situation, your cells have plenty of energy left over once all the survival functions are running smoothly, and they can use this energy for growth and maintenance. When this is the context throughout your body, it appears as that level of radiating health we mentioned earlier.
The 3 Energy Pathways
So the question is obvious: How do we create more ATP within the cells?
Unfortunately, this isn’t always as simple as eating more carbohydrates and fats, the main fuel sources that get broken down into ATP. In some cases of starvation or extreme dieting, simply eating more fuel is enough to fix health, but often, the actual energy production pathways become deranged and excess fuel simply turns to stored fat without increasing the energy state of your cells.
In essence, there are three main energy pathways your cells use. The main pathway that creates the majority of cellular energy in a healthy person is the oxidative metabolism of carbohydrates, also called respiration. This happens in the mitochondria of your cells, and when everything is running smoothly, glucose — the primary carbohydrate your cells use — will be broken down into a lot of ATP and produce healthy carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product.
This CO2 is incredibly important for the health of your cells (and consequently your body), primarily because it both maintains proper ion balance in your cells, and allows the transfer of oxygen throughout your lungs, blood and cells, which is crucially important for the efficient production of ATP. When your mitochondria are healthy and working optimally, consuming more carbohydrates will lead to greater respiration, more ATP in the cells and lots of CO2 production.
But when the mitochondria aren’t working properly, glucose will get burned through the second energy pathway, called glycolysis, which doesn’t use oxygen. This happens outside of the mitochondria, and while it produces ATP more quickly, it also produces far less total ATP. The most harmful part, however, is that it produces lactic acid instead of CO2.
This lactic acid has a suppressive effect on the respiration energy pathways and signals less energy production throughout all the cells in the body. It also bogs down the liver, which uses its glycogen (stored glucose) to break the lactic acid down, further damaging metabolism throughout your body. So, in essence, you can either burn glucose through the healthy respiration pathway that produces lots of ATP and CO2, or you can burn it through the stressed glycolysis pathway that produces less ATP and lactic acid.
The third and final pathway is the breaking down of fatty acids via a process called beta-oxidation, which then results in respiration within the mitochondria. Since fat burning uses oxygen and produces CO2, it’s not inherently a harmful way to produce energy, but it’s also not as beneficial as the respiration of glucose, partly because it’s much slower and produces much less CO2. Remember that CO2 is needed to get oxygen into the mitochondria, so less CO2 means less energy production by the mitochondria. On top of that, fat burning will naturally only happen to a significant degree when you’re under some sort of stress, don’t have any glucose available or aren’t properly burning glucose via respiration.
All of this points to the fact that fat burning isn’t the best option, since ideally, you would be able to burn glucose via respiration and instead use the fat in order body to build hormones and new cells. While there are some minor nuances to these pathways, this simplistic view helps make it clear how important consuming adequate carbohydrates is and how important it is that your cells are able to adequately burn them through respiration in the mitochondria.
When Energy Production Becomes Deranged Throughout The Body
When your body is in the sickness state, on the low side of the spectrum of health, your cells are primarily producing ATP through glycolysis and fat burning. And while simply consuming more carbohydrates improves the availability of the fuel needed for respiration, it doesn’t always improve the ability of your cells to do so. Many people today have low metabolisms despite eating a lot of food due to the fact that their cells are stuck producing energy through both the glycolysis of carbohydrate and excessive fat burning without the high levels of respiration that lead to radiating health.
Often, this stems back to elevated stress hormones and lack of thyroid hormone, which signals all of your cells that there isn’t a lot of available energy, and they should spare what they have for survival. So there’s the obvious connection here to hormonal balance, but it also works the other way: the stress hormones increase when cells need more energy than they can produce through respiration of glucose alone. In addition, gut health and liver health are both crucial to the entire functioning of the bioenergetics throughout your body, because the liver activates the thyroid hormone and stores glycogen in order to keep blood glucose levels stable without needing to release adrenaline and cortisol. In fact, low liver glycogen storage is one of the core problems of a low metabolism.
How To Improve Energy Production And Detoxification
In addition to healing your gut and liver to improve metabolism, there are a few other crucial steps you can take.
First, make sure you are eating enough carbohydrates. Around one to two grams per pound of bodyweight should be enough, but you can certainly eat more when your metabolism is working properly. This is crucial for keeping glycogen storage high in the liver and providing plenty of glucose for the cells and the bloodstream, which has the effect of reducing cortisol and adrenaline, and all of the related stress hormones, ultimately allowing greater levels of respiration to take place.
In addition, avoiding polyunsaturated fats is crucial, as these fatty acids cause lots of inflammation and oxidative stress, but most directly, they damage the mitochondria, which are so important for respiration. The double bonds in polyunsaturated fats easily break when exposed to heat and oxygen, which are most abundant in the mitochondria. Instead, choose saturated fats like coconut oil, dairy and beef, and monounsaturated fat sources like avocados and olive oil. These fats are extremely stable, and despite what some health institutions (who often have vegetable oil companies on their board of directors) might claim, they have a very positive effect on your overall health and well-being.
It’s also important to ensure that you’re getting plenty of vitamin C and the B vitamins, especially vitamin B1. Vitamin C helps prevent the free radical damage that shuts down the mitochondria and allows adrenaline to work properly so that you don’t have to produce more than needed. Vitamin B1 is critical for the Kreb’s Cycle and Electron Transport Chain, two of the biochemical steps that take place during the respiration of glucose. Both of these, along with many other vitamins and minerals, can be found in high amounts in most fruits, so eating a high fruit diet is recommended.
Finally, in certain situations it can be extremely helpful to supplement with desiccate thyroid, which contains both the active thyroid T3 and the inactive T4. This can help to get your cells using glucose properly again, and improve your natural thyroid production over time.
Action Steps & Ways To Boost Your Metabolism Naturally:
- Fix gut health to avoid endotoxin poisoning of the liver.
- Eat plenty of carbohydrates, at least one to two grams per pound of bodyweight.
- Avoid polyunsaturated fats and choose saturated or monounsaturated fats instead.
- Eat lots of fruit in order to get all the vitamins and minerals needed for proper metabolism.
- Consider supplementing with vitamin C and vitamin B1.
- Consider supplementing with desiccated thyroid to get your natural thyroid production back on track.