Metabolism 101 (+ How to Increase Your Metabolism)
The definition of the word metabolism is quite simple, and refers to all chemical reactions in the body. However, the terms metabolism and metabolic rate can be used interchangeably in referring to the rate at which you burn calories. It’s simple science: the higher your metabolism is, the more calories you burn and the easier it is to lose weight. Conversely, if you have a slow or sluggish metabolism, you will likely feel low on energy, find yourself gaining weight despite your best efforts, and you might even struggle with depression or other mood disorders.
Hormones and Metabolism
We can’t talk about metabolism without also touching on hormones, as metabolism is controlled by specific hormones, and all hormones are intricately connected, forming a web with a sort of domino effect. Our basal metabolic rate, which is the minimum number of calories we need at rest, is controlled and determined by the thyroid glands. The thyroid gland produces T3 and T4 (triiodothyronine and tetraiodothyronine), and these hormones are released by TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), which is produced in the pituitary gland.
If hormones are out of balance, this often leads to metabolism being sluggish or over-active, both of which can cause a host of problems.
Stress and Metabolism
Taking things a step further, when thinking about metabolism and how to boost metabolic function (or regulate it, whatever the case may be), it’s important to also understand what a major impact stress has on our hormones and, therefore, our metabolism.
The HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) is “a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among the endocrine glands: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (a pea-shaped structure below the hypothalamus), and the adrenal…glands” (1) (small…organs on top of the kidneys). The HPA axis is responsible for our fight or flight response.
The axis that works in conjunction with the HPA axis to control reproductive hormones is called the HPG axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis), which “refers to the effects of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and gonads as if these individual endocrine glands were a single entity as a whole” (2) The HPG axis is responsible for reproduction and development (puberty and aging).
These two axis work closely together and in conjunction with the hormone cortisol (our primary stress hormone), which has a major effect on blood sugar levels, metabolism, immune health.
Believe it or not, when we are chronically stressed, our hormone production is decreased, and this negatively effects the metabolism. Therefore, in order to boost and support the metabolism, it is critical to address chronic stress and balance hormones.
How to Increase Your Metabolism: 10 Natural Ways
1. Don’t skimp on protein
While all foods raise your metabolic rate for about a three hour window after eating, protein raises it by up to 30%, compared to 5-10% with carbohydrates and 3% with fats, according to a 2014 study (3). Furthermore, protein is key to feeling full, therefore reducing cravings and overall calorie intake throughout the day. Strive to eat protein with every meal and snack.
[Related: 4 Really Good Reasons to Eat a High Protein Diet]
2. Drink green tea
Studies have shown that the simple act of drinking green tea can boost your metabolism by 5%, and burn more fat (4). Always opt for natural green, jasmine or oolong tea, and steer clear of canned or bottled versions that contain a long list of other ingredients (primarily sugar).
3. Eat more spicy foods
Don’t like spicy? Well, maybe give it another shot. Capsaicin is a primary ingredient in hot peppers, and is known for its metabolism-boosting effects. One study even suggested that eating enough capsaicin could burn an extra 10 calories per meal (5). Might not sound like a lot, but it definitely adds up with time.
4. Drink coffee
For many coffee drinkers, the news that coffee can boost your metabolism by up to 11% will probably make you very happy. The leaner you are, the more coffee will likely boost your metabolism, and vice versa. Remember though, if you suffer from anxiety or insomnia, don’t overdo it.
5. Try internal training
Workouts ruts and chronic cardio can wreak havoc on your weight loss plan, but high intensity interval training (HIIT) can seriously take it to the next level. Multiple studies have proven that short bursts of very intense exercise will burn more fat and increase your metabolism post exercise much more than endurance cardio will. Instead of beelining it to the elliptical machine, try your gym’s Tabata class. You can also easily do HIIT at home, getting in a great workout in just 15 minutes.
6. Drink cold water, but not with meals
Drinking water, period, will help to speed up your metabolic rate. One study even showed that drinking a half liter of water sped of children’s metabolism by up to 30% for an hour afterwards (6). Cold water might boost your calorie burning potential even more, but can also interfere with digestion if consumed with food. Keep your meal-time water to room temperature, but opt for icy cold any other time of day.
7. Stand up
Sounds obvious, but if you spend the bulk of your day sitting, your metabolism is suffering. Getting up every hour from your desk and walking around will not only burn more calories, but prevent you from developing some serious muscle imbalances (back pain, hunched shoulders, etc). Set an alarm on your phone or do whatever you have to do in order to make this happen.
8. Use coconut oil
Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids, which are known for their fat burning and metabolism boosting properties. Replace any vegetable oils you might be using (canola, soy, corn, etc) with coconut oil in cooking, as it is also safe to heat at high temperatures, unlike those other oils.
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9. Treat chronic inflammation
A sluggish metabolism and weight gain can be the cause of chronic, systemic (internal) inflammation, so signs of this type of inflammation should be noted and addressed. Inflammation can be caused by food allergies or sensitivities, a lack of healthy gut bacteria (probiotics), over-exercise, chronic stress and more.
10. Get your beauty rest
Don’t roll your eyes at this one, as it is biologically (nearly) impossible to lose weight if you’re not sleeping enough, as it takes a serious toll on your hormone levels. And in any battle against your hormones, you will not win. Studies show that lack of sleep is hugely related to obesity, due mainly to its metabolism lowering effects (7).
What If My Metabolism Doesn’t Speed Up?
Whatever your goal, boosting your metabolism will raise your energy levels and support weight loss efforts. If you already do all of these things (and more) but still feel sluggish and like something just isn’t right, talk with a qualified practitioner about whether thyroid and other hormonal testing might be a good idea. And don’t forget to address chronic stress, as trying to boost your metabolism without first lowering your stress levels is a battle against your hormones that you are unlikely to win.