A living organism is designed to maintain its integrity throughout its lifetime. Life forms cannot exist without energy, without fuel. Each cell of an animal requires energy to function and do its job as part of the whole. The regulation of energy––called metabolism––is critical to our survival as living beings. Our metabolism organizes all energy and matter in a way that is self-sustaining. It is the process of life itself. A healthy metabolism is required for longevity, vitality and freedom from disease.
For millions of years of human development, our metabolisms were healthy. Now, we are swamped with epidemics of disease. Clearly, our ability to maintain the integrity of the organism–us–and remain healthy throughout our lifetime has been crippled. Because metabolism is essential to the process of all life, examining what has handicapped this “driver of life” is the logical place to start looking. First, let’s examine metabolism itself and learn how it works in a state of health.
A common way for us to think about our bodies is as collection of little pieces––liver, kidneys, heart, arteries, bones, eyes, stomach, etc.––each piece doing its own part. We tend to look at our food in the same way; that each nutrient we eat has its specific task. This way of thinking is far too simplified. We should think of the body as a whole––a wonderful symphony of cells working together to assure survival without any effort on our part. This exquisite arrangement keeps us alive and healthy.
Our bodies can take care of themselves :
Each of us is an extraordinarily complex web of systems in which all our different organs, cells, and tissues interact with each other continuously, cooperating as one for the common good. Nothing can happen without there being an instantaneous response somewhere else. We adjust our internal environment constantly to infinitesimal changes in both the external environment and to our fuel supply. This is accomplished without our thinking about it.
A stable equilibrium is necessary for everything to hum along as nature intended. This homeostasis is choreographed in an area of the brain––the hypothalamus––that evolved long before our cerebrum, our conscious brain. The hypothalamus regulates all our interdependent elements through the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system. Our cells and tissues are communicating all the time via hormones, enzymes, molecular messengers, and through the nervous system.
We are each a finely tuned orchestra of instruments, performing an elaborate composition of physiological processes. The endocrine system, which controls hormones, regulates growth and the use of fuel, is one of the sections of the orchestra and, as we shall see, it is fundamental to the harmony of the whole ensemble––us.
For the music to play sweetly and measured, we need fuel. Food is our fuel, of course, and how that fuel is used––partitioned––throughout the cells of the body is coordinated by a critical hormone––insulin. The conductor of our internal orchestra is insulin. Life cannot exist without it.
Insulin… is the one hormone that serves to coordinate and regulate everything having to do with the storage and use of nutrients and thus the maintenance of homeostasis and, in a word, life.
––Good Calories, Bad Calories, pg. 144
We understand now that this dynamic stability––our milieu intérieur, as Claude Bernard described––is fundamental to the nature of the wholeness of all living beings, and we know that metabolism is the process of life itself. It makes sense that anything that disrupts this perfection will induce immediate responses that work to set things right again. For example, as Gary Taubes explains (GC,BC p. 143) :
On cold days, we will metabolically compensate to generate more heat… the ambient temperature immediately affects, among other things, the regulation of blood-sugar and of carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Anything that increases body heat (like exercise or a hot summer day) will be balanced by a reduction of heat generated by the cells, and so there is a decrease in fuel use by the cells. It will also be balanced by dehydration, increased sweating, and the dilation of blood vessels near the surface of the skin. These, in turn, will affect blood pressure, so another set of homeostatic mechanisms must work, among other things, to maintain a stable concentration of salts, electric charge, and water volume. As the volume of water in and around the cells decreases in response to the water lost from sweating or dehydration, our bodies respond by limiting the amount of water the kidneys excrete as urine and inducing thirst, so we drink water and replenish what we’ve lost. And so it goes. Any change in any one homeostatic variable results in compensatory changes in all of them.
Insulin is the regulator of fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism. It controls the synthesis of glycogen, which is the storage form of glucose, in the liver and in muscle. Insulin is involved in the repair and growth of cells and even in the function of RNA and DNA. Insulin is the conductor of the orchestra of life.
Things start to go awry when the action of insulin has been handicapped in some way, making it difficult to maintain homeostasis. It seems logical to look to the metabolism and to insulin for the source of dysfunction. What happens when this fine balancing act performed by insulin is upset? What interferes with the proper metabolic signaling?
Insulin Overload :
Through decades of eating foods that continually flood our bloodstreams with glucose, our tissues eventually become “deaf” to insulin. The cells become what is termed insulin-resistant. Insulin is then chronically oversecreted in an attempt to overcome the resistance of the cells. When our liver becomes resistant to insulin because of the high-carbohydrate foods we are eating, it begins sending out the wrong signals. The other parts of our body start getting the wrong signals and they start to behave badly. A cascade of dysfunction starts and our bodies begin to fail.
It’s all these aspects of homeostatic regulatory systems––in particular, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and kidney and liver functions––that are malfunctioning in the cluster of metabolic abnormalities associated with metabolic syndrome and with the chronic diseases of civilization.]
…all of the abnormalities of metabolic syndrome and the accompanying chronic diseases of civilization can be viewed as a dysregulation of homeostasis caused by repercussions throughout the body of the blood-sugar, insulin, and fructose-induced changes in regulatory systems.]
…that refined carbohydrates and sugar, in particular, create such profound disturbances in blood sugar and insulin that they lead to disturbances in mechanisms of homeostatic regulation and growth throughout the body.
––Good Calories, Bad Calories, pg. 144-145
We Have the Ultimate Power :
We have control over whether our cells become resistant to insulin, which means we ultimately have control over whether or not we become diseased. Metabolism drives life, but we drive our metabolism through what we eat. When we understand how this process works, we are then able to make good decisions about what foods lead to a healthy metabolism and what foods lead to metabolic dysfunction and to chronic disease. This knowledge is powerful.
Drive Your Metabolism to be Perfectly Tuned through Food.
To your health!
Clark & Nina