How to Make Your Metabolism Hum

Protecting metabolic health and avoiding diabetes
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc

Sugar metabolism is a beautiful thing. Here’s how it works: Food is converted into blood sugar (glucose). The pancreas secretes insulin, a hormonal messenger that tells cells to take in glucose. Cell membranes are then activated to allow sugar inside cells, where little power plants convert it into energy.

Generally, this system works routinely for decades. In rare cases, an autoimmune response kills off insulin-producing cells, causing type 1 diabetes. The pancreas doesn’t send out the message, so cells don’t know to take in glucose. But there’s another, more common, way the system can go awry.

In type 2 diabetes and its precursor, metabolic syndrome, cells get the message but they just don’t want to listen. Insulin is secreted by the pancreas, but the cell receptors for insulin have become resistant and don’t transmit the message as effectively to allow glucose to enter the cell.  This insulin resistance allows glucose to accumulate in the bloodstream. Untreated, these chronically elevated levels of glucose characteristic of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes generate inflammation that can damage our cardiovascular network, kidneys, and eyes—virtually everything with a blood supply. Put simply, too much glucose is poison.

Who is at risk?

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2011 there were nearly 19 million people diagnosed with diabetes. The disease is slightly more prevalent in men. But perhaps the most sobering statistic is that an estimated 79 million people had prediabetes—aka metabolic syndrome—which is a collection of symptoms such as elevated glucose, excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and others that increases risk factors for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. With prediabetes, cells show some insulin resistance but patients don’t have full-blown diabetes yet. In addition, an estimated seven million people have type 2 diabetes, but have not been diagnosed.

One reason so many people are unaware they have type 2 diabetes, or its precursor, metabolic syndrome, is that the symptoms can be quite vague. Dry mouth, fatigue, intense hunger and thirst, headaches, and unexplained weight loss are the most prevalent warning signs of full-blown diabetes. Metabolic syndrome and the insulin resistance that often precedes type 2 diabetes has a different set of symptoms, with weight gain around the waistline being a hallmark. “Silent” symptoms include high blood pressure, elevated blood lipids, and elevated blood sugar. It’s a good idea to get your blood pressure checked as well as routine health-maintenance blood tests to measure your blood sugar and lipid levels.

We are facing a metabolic epidemic in the United States, and the causes are relatively easy to identify. While some people may have a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance, the majority of cases are self-inflicted. Quite simply, we eat too much, choose the wrong foods, and exercise too little.

Addicted to junk food

There’s a lot of evidence that America’s love of processed foods is having a significant impact on both our waistlines and our metabolic health. This is not limited to the United States. As Asian nations become more affluent and indulge in the luxury of the “Western” diet, they too are facing diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

People often view this type of overindulgence as a willpower issue, but that oversimplifies the condition. Oftentimes, people who have a problem with junk food are addicted. In many cases, these foods are actually designed to create and perpetuate that addiction.

One of the problems with processed foods is their glycemic index, the measurement of how rapidly the body digests them and extracts glucose. This is important because we respond well to consistent glucose levels and poorly to spikes and drops. Too much glucose too fast generates a brief high. Insulin levels rise rapidly to meet the demand and often precipitate a drastic drop in blood sugar. This results in intense cravings for the foods that made us high. (That’s why it’s so difficult to eat just one cookie.) These dramatic fluctuations in blood glucose stimulate a cascade of other hormones that affect many aspects of our metabolism including brain chemistry.

A number of studies have shown that junk food affects the brain’s reward center like cocaine. In addition, low blood sugar causes release of cortisol, one of the body’s stress signals. High cortisol levels inhibit weight loss and lead to fat accumulation around the midsection. This “spare tire” fat produces its own chemicals that drive inflammation. This is a downward spiral that we have the tools to interrupt.

Choosing the right foods

The problem can extend beyond junk food, as even healthy foods can be high on the glycemic index. Remember, as far as the body is concerned, carbohydrate means sugar: It doesn’t matter what type of starch it comes from. Those big molecules are ultimately broken down into the glucose cells need for energy.

There’s no question that corn, potatoes, beets, and peas are nutritionally sound—in moderation. But, because they are high in carbohydrates, they are also high on the glycemic index, leading to blood sugar spikes and crashes. We can eat small amounts of these vegetables by combining them with healthy oils and lean protein to slow down their absorption.

On the other hand, there are a variety of low-glycemic-index vegetables, such as broccoli, chard, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower. These will provide essential nutrients, including much-needed antioxidants, without rapidly increasing blood sugar.

A new food plan

The first step in fighting insulin resistance is developing a strong diet plan. This is not a diet in the pop culture sense of temporary caloric restrictions we abandon when we reach our goal weight or simply get tired of being hungry. Rather, this is a completely different approach to food.

>> Eliminate processed foods. If it comes from the grocery’s freezer section, it’s probably not good for us. Many of these products are nutritionally inert and deficient, designed simply to deliver sugar, salt, and fat. This is also true of many of the boxed and bagged products sitting on the shelves. As a simple rule of thumb, if you have difficulty pronouncing most of the ingredients, it’s a good idea to put the box back on the shelf. Becoming a label reader is a good practice that will help increase your awareness of the foods you are consuming.

>> Reduce sugar. It’s unrealistic to ask most people to eliminate sugar, but it’s a great idea to cut back. Sugar often goes straight into the blood, and craters just as rapidly. However, if we combine sugar with fiber and protein, we slow the rollercoaster and give the body more time to adjust. Look for substitutes to satisfy that urge for something sweet. Fresh berries and fruits such as apples, plums, and nectarines are low glycemic fruits with a satisfying amount of sweet taste. Add a bit of shredded coconut and a few nuts or seeds and you have a healthy snack or desert.

>> Eat lean proteins, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables, and drink plenty of water. Familiarize yourself with the great variety of lentils and beans which can be incorporated into soups, salads, and wraps. Nuts and seeds (minus the added oil and salt), are excellent sources of high quality protein when used in moderation due to their high calorie content. Camp out in the produce section and stock up on fruits to help overcome those sweet cravings. Eat organic when possible, especially meats and dairy products. Farmers give livestock antibiotics to spur growth, and some research is showing these additives may have the same effect on humans.

>> Take care of your population of beneficial gut bacteria. Probiotics introduce friendly microbes that help with digestion, nutrition absorption, and many other aspects of health. New studies have shown that unhealthy gut bacteria contribute to weight gain. Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi (cultured vegetables) are all good sources of friendly bacteria.

>> Use healthy oils such as olive, coconut, avocado, and walnut oils. Avocado and coconut are more heat stable, so these can be used for light cooking. Avoid foods that are fried as they contain unhealthy oils that have been damaged by high heat. Also avoid peanut, corn, soybean, and safflower oils that are high in omega-6, as well as any products containing partially hydrogenated oils.

Be happy

One popular euphemism for junk food is comfort food. It just doesn’t sound as bad if it’s giving comfort. Unfortunately, finding comfort in a slice of cheesecake may be part of the problem. Restoring a healthy relationship with food is an important step toward maintaining metabolic health. Stress reduction is a good starting point, and meditation is an excellent way to achieve it. I also recommend yoga, being with friends, and long walks in nature.

It’s also important to get good, regular sleep. The body simply does not function well when we have a sleep deficit, and we often turn to food to make up for the energy we lose by not getting enough rest. Burning the candle at both ends throws off our circadian rhythms and ultimately harms metabolism.

Exercise

It’s good to think of metabolic health as a ledger—we must balance how many calories we bring in with how many we expend. And aside from the metabolic aspects, working our bodies is just good for our health. We evolved as busy, active hunter-gatherers. Our bodies just don’t understand why we keep sitting down. Exercise helps to metabolize sugars stored in the muscles and liver as well as circulating blood glucose.

As mentioned, yoga and nature hikes are good for both mind and body. I would also add t’ai chi and qigong, two other practices that calm and rejuvenate us. However, exercise is an individual choice, and we should all gravitate to the most sustainable model. It doesn’t have to be strenuous: 30 minutes of walking each day is all it takes.

Support strong metabolism

There are a number of botanicals that have been used for centuries in Chinese and Indian healing traditions to promote healthy metabolism. In my clinical practice, I recommend a comprehensive supplement called Integrative Metabolic Formula that offers broad-spectrum support for numerous aspects of metabolic health. Based on the principles of integrative medicine, this unique formula blends traditional Chinese and ayurvedic botanicals such as holy basil, kudzu root, and gymnema leaf with medicinal mushrooms and targeted nutrients such as alpha lipoic acid, L-taurine, sodium alginate, and others. This supplement is an excellent choice for those seeking to maintain healthy glucose levels, support metabolism, reduce fat and sugar absorption, help control cholesterol, and reduce cravings.

Unlike the flu, or any disease caused by a virus or bacterium, type 2 diabetes is not contagious. We can choose whether we want to be healthy. While it’s not always easy to make those healthy choices, the rewards are incalculable. We can all solve the diabetes epidemic, one person at a time.

 

Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.