We hear the word “metabolism” frequently. And, if yours is “sluggish”, it likely impacts you daily. Although we have a general sense of what metabolism is and how it affects us, few people can accurately define it. Metabolism can be thought of as the body’s chemical processes that allow 3 crucial aspects of life to occur:
- Energy for body activity and body heat to stay warm
- Body functions for basic life to occur (like breathing and digestion)
- Body structure production and maintenance (brain, bones, muscles, hair, etc)
These areas of metabolism have in common a demand for an energy source, i.e. calories! If any one of these 3 aspects of metabolism is impaired or sluggish, negative consequences are inevitable, often including weight gain!
Since my typical patient is concerned with chronic, unwanted weight gain, I am very aware of metabolism and its impact on health, sense of well-being, and body weight over time. From a chemical engineering perspective, I know that even a slight decrease in the daily metabolism rate can cause significant weight gain over time. Even a 1% reduction in resting metabolism, if eating remains the same, will result in about 13 calories a day of unwanted weight gain. Over 30 years, this is 50 lbs of unwanted body weight! YIKES! (Note: Excess body weight, including fat, blood vessels, and other tissues is 2,800 calories per pound.)
However, be encouraged, you can position yourself for a healthy metabolism with a simple self-assessment followed by addressing 5 areas of metabolism health. First, ask which of the following sets of common findings best describe you:
Common Findings with a Sluggish Metabolism:
- “Feeling cold.” If you tend to be “cold” when others are warm, you likely are not producing adequate body heat, an indicator of a “slow metabolism”.
- “Feeling tired.” If you are more tired than you should be, you likely are not experiencing the metabolism and energy production that is optimal. And, likely, you are not burning calories like you should.
- “A weak body.” What if some body structures are not as strong as they should be? If your muscles or bones have become weaker over time, it indicates a metabolism defect. Likewise, weak, brittle nails or slow-growing hair indicates a metabolism defect. The same is true of each body organ that is not as strong and healthy as it should be.
Common Findings with a Healthy Metabolism:
- “High energy.” Energy is available to perform activities with more “gusto” and ease.
- “Calorie burning.” Even at rest, basic metabolism function will burn more calories to help keep you lean, strong, and ready for action when needed (we call this resting metabolism). People in this “calorie burning mode” typically feel energetic.
- “A strong body.” Body organs and structures will be stronger and more capable. And don’t we all want to have the best possible brain, liver, kidneys, muscles, and other crucial organs? When you are active, do you “feel strong”. Do people comment on the health of your skin, nail, or hair?
Now, if concerns exist, address these…
Common Causes of a Sluggish Metabolism:
- Fatigue. This creates a cycle of slow metabolism. Fatigue results in less physical activity and weaker muscle and bones over time, which further slows the metabolism, creating more fatigue. Fatigue is both a cause and a consequence of a slow metabolism!
- Nutrient deficiencies. These are common to the point of being epidemic. Magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin D, iron, fiber, and other crucial nutrients are frequently less than optimal. We MUST get all essential nutrients in optimum amounts for optimum health and metabolism!
- Aging. This one is inevitable…. or is it? There is new research indicating that optimal nutrient intake, fitness activities, lower calorie diets, and maintaining a lean body are actually able to slow aging at the level of the DNA (known as telomere length). I embrace these strategies. Research has shown a 7.5% decrease in physical activity with each decade of life. Further, resting metabolism decreases by about 150 calories per day with each decade of life. This can mean a total decrease of 200 calories burned per day after 10 years of aging if “nature takes its course”. Our metabolism is slowing over time unless we are being VERY proactive. I say let’s fight aging!
- Hormone deficiencies. Thyroid and sex hormone deficiencies can slow metabolism directly and also result in less physical and sexual activity, which further impairs metabolism rates. Management of deficiencies, when appropriate, can be very helpful.
- Medications. Beta-blocker medications that slow the heart rate are notorious for slowing the metabolism an average of 180 calories per day! Many other medications can contribute to fatigue and weight gain as well.
There are other causes of a slow metabolism, including sleep deprivation and stress. If you feel your metabolism is sluggish, address each of the above factors systematically. Get a medical or nutritional assessment and professional assistance if you feel your metabolism is impaired and the cause is not an easy fix. Life is too short to have unnecessary limitations on your energy, your body function or your body’s physical structures.
Go for Optimum Health! You are worth it!!!
Rick Tague, MD, MPH & TM