The ‘Big Picture’ Role of Metabolic Health

While many Americans have a vague idea of what metabolism is, far fewer are aware of how dependent the human body is on a healthy metabolism to ward off a host of modern chronic diseases and health issues. Metabolism is upstream of many of the chronic diseases that cost society the most, and a deeper understanding of metabolic structures and processes may be able to help us prevent them. 

Simply put, metabolic health is total body health — the combination of ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications. Metabolism is a collection of all of the chemical and cellular reactions that produce and store energy from food in the human body. When these processes don’t work the way they should, people often develop something known as metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when a person has three or more of these common characteristics or ailments: High blood glucose (sugar), low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol in the blood, high levels of triglycerides in the blood, large waist circumference, or high blood pressure. Bad news, and according to a recent study only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy

The fact is, being metabolically unhealthy greatly increases a person’s odds of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease. Hence, the need to solve for this disconnect.

Using Individualized Testing To Diagnose Future Metabolic Problems

  • While the five symptoms that diagnose metabolic unhealthiness are important baseline metrics, they don’t tell the entire story of metabolic health and wellness. Using other standards and tests, we can accurately predict the transition towards metabolic unhealthiness and the development of disease before any of the outward symptoms surface.
  • Most standard metabolic tests that patients might receive at their yearly check-up with their primary care doctor don’t pick up a significant portion of metabolic unhealthiness pre-indicators. For example, a continuous glucose monitoring test picks up roughly 15% more pre-diabetics than standard testing. Looking at these earlier biomarkers is crucial to giving doctors and patients the most information which they can act on before problems fully manifest. 
  • Each individual has unique patterns for processing food and breaking it down into glucose. Because of the level of individuality involved, it’s becoming more clear that individual medium-term glucose monitoring can flag future issues that might not show up on standard tests. 
  • Type 2 diabetes has a number of different sub-phenotypes that present in slightly different ways. We know from extensive research that the three main subtypes are diabetic nephropathy and diabetic retinopathy, cancer malignancy and cardiovascular disease, and neurological diseases. While these phenotypes of different kinds of presenting type 2 diabetes have been extensively broken down, less is known about the sub-phenotypes of pre-diabetes and how they can present. 
  • Because there are probably about 6 different sub-phenotypes of pre-diabetes, each of these should be treated with a different precision battery of medium-term tests that can give medical teams the best information to treat the individual case. 
  • While the conventional wisdom of the past was to wait to deal with diabetes until you were diagnosed, this is no longer the best strategy. In addition to this, pre-diabetes itself comes with a host of other immediate health risk increases, such as kidney dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease.

Food Choices Make a Difference

  • Most people eat around a metric ton of food each year, and research shows that the molecular makeup of this food directly determines our health outcomes, gene expression, and what our cells are made out of. 
  • Because so many of our food choices are based on food marketing and interpersonal recommendations, we don’t have a great idea of how different foods interact with our individual physiology on a day-to-day basis. 
  • By using consumer-friendly glucose level monitoring devices, the healthy non-diabetic population can unlock massive amounts of personalized data about their own individual interactions with sugars and carbohydrates, and how their body handles them. 
  • Just because you don’t have diabetes or pre-diabetes now doesn’t mean that your body isn’t struggling to deal with the habits that you’re throwing at it every day. By monitoring these behaviors, people can begin to recognize unhealthy behaviors and steer themselves in a direction that will produce healthier outcomes. 
  • Collecting and analyzing these data sets on a macro level may also illuminate food choices that are not currently correlated with metabolic healthiness or unhealthiness.
  • Using bio wearable data devices, individuals will be able to tap into a massive database of information about what a particular food choice does to the majority of the non-diabetic population, allowing them to make real-time data-based health choices. 
  • Consistently eating foods that induce rapid glucose spikes can have a long-term effect on the body’s ability to effectively process food. By choosing foods that produce lower spikes each meal, we can reduce wear and tear on metabolism. 
  • These massive data sets can also help people identify themselves within pre-existing phenotypes, allowing them to make similar healthy choices. 
  • Lifestyle choices are also a huge factor in reducing glycemic variability. One test had all of the users drink a twelve-ounce can of Coca-Cola and then take a short walk. The next day, the same users were asked to drink the same can of Coke and then sit on the couch for the same period of time. When the users took a walk after a Coke-induced glucose spike, it reduced the spike by around 35%. 
  • The benefit of this type of individualized monitoring and testing is that you don’t have to compare your individualized data to a control group of people who are not you. You can easily gather data that allows you to be your own control group, eliminating much of the guesswork that individuals having unique bodies and metabolisms inherently presents. 

Detecting Pre-Diabetes And Putting Diabetics In Remission

  • Children who eat a diet of highly sugary foods are often in a high-risk category for developing pre-diabetes, and then eventually full-blown type 2 diabetes. But often, the signs of these metabolic diseases present too late for much to be done about them. This makes intervention much harder and makes it less likely for the child to avoid diabetes before it takes hold. 
  • Because children often strongly dislike using glucometers to prick their fingers routinely, new technology is being used to measure ketone levels without the need to draw blood.
  • Ketone breath meters may be able to shed light on which children are starting down an unhealthy metabolic path. Often, diabetes is the last indicator in a long line of comorbidities. The earlier we can detect these early-stage signs, the easier it is to intervene and avoid the most destructive outcomes. 
  • A recent small clinical trial allowed a sample group of new diabetes patients in West Virginia to instantly monitor their blood sugar over the course of several months. Without extensive coaching or training, two-thirds of the patients were able to reach diabetic remission, meaning that they didn’t have to use medication to manage their new disease. 
  • Using instant blood sugar monitoring technology has also been shown to help people who struggle with processed food addiction. The immediate feedback loop can help to encourage people to stay the course and make healthier decisions that can ultimately put their disease into remission. 

Next Steps In Developing New Ways Of Detecting Metabolic Unhealthiness

  • New technology may be coming down the pipeline that will allow medical professionals and patients to track real-time insulin levels. This could be game-changing for detecting pre-diabetes even earlier and give participants even more data to work with. 
  • There are other biomarkers like inflammatory cytokine levels, cortisol levels, and uric acid levels that could help doctors see more of the full metabolic picture. While continuous glucose monitoring is a great place to start, being able to monitor these biomarkers would illuminate other dietary choices that affect metabolism. 
  • Finding ways to monitor these molecule levels in real-time is more difficult than glucose, mostly because they are larger, requiring different sensors to give real-time data. However, organizations are working on convenient ways to do this, and hopefully, these new types of technology will become widely available soon. 

First Steps To Improving Metabolic Health

  • People who are worried about their metabolic health can start with an intermittent fasting window of around 14 hours between their last nighttime meal and their breakfast meal. This can help the body stabilize glucose levels and deal with other spikes that may happen throughout the day. 
  • Talking to a professional who deals with metabolic health issues can help you understand where on the road to metabolic collapse you are. Because the symptoms of metabolic unhealthiness only present after a substantial amount of damage has been done, it can be useful to use preventative measures. 
  • Taking a simple cholesterol panel at your next routine check-up can also be a good starting point to help you figure out whether you are on the road toward becoming insulin resistant. 
  • Eating fewer refined carbohydrates and sugars is also a great way to minimize your risk of developing insulin resistance as you age. Moving from processed foods to eating a mostly unprocessed diet can go a long way toward staving off pre-diabetes. 

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