We have been refining, researching, and reveling in a low-carb/high-fat lifestyle since 2001. We live aboard our homebuilt trimaran for six months each year and travel in one of two small vintage trailers. Our 1948 Higgins Camp Trailer is off-road capable with his rugged build and high ground clearance. Our 1979 Trillium 4500 fiberglass egg offers more creature comforts, but she is confined to established roads. It is our passion to meet new friends along the way, hear their stories, and continue learning about ourselves and our world.
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
Posted in Wisdom of the Body on November 27, 2011
Our bodies are designed to maintain the stability of our internal environment through interdependent mechanisms that maintain equilibrium regardless of external influences. We are a “harmonious ensemble” of 15 to 20 trillion cells designed to survive in highly diverse conditions through constant adjustment of the myriad components necessary for life. Our biological systems are dynamic and exquisitely tuned. Anything that disturbs the balance in any system will induce immediate responses that work to return us to stability.
One of our supremely regulated mechanisms is the availability of fuel (fatty acids and glucose) in our bloodstream. A stable fuel supply is necessary for survival of each cell and its contribution to the life of the organism. Crucial to our equilibrium is a blood-sugar level that does not fluctuate outside a narrow, healthy range. Glucose is a particularly reactive molecule––it is a metabolic toxin in high levels. Our bodies need only a scant teaspoon of glucose in the blood at any precise moment for those few critical tissues that depend on it. Any excess must be burned for fuel or safely stored away for future use. Enter the hormone insulin: its most critical job is to keep blood sugar under control.
Throughout our ancestral history, there were few carbohydrates in the diet, so we had little excess glucose or fructose to deal with. These days, carbohydrates are ubiquitous. Insulin, produced by our pancreas, now is forced to work overtime to prevent blood-sugar from remaining too high. It lowers blood glucose by “locking” fatty acids in the fat cells so they cannot be metabolized until glucose is back in the safe range. It shuttles what glucose cannot be burned into the fat cells for storage as triglycerides. It tells the muscles to burn glucose instead of fatty acids and to store glucose as glycogen.
When we eat carbohydrates every few hours, we will also have chronically high insulin levels because, again, a high level of glucose is toxic. Carbohydrates are singularly responsible for stimulating the release of insulin. Dietary fat has no effect on insulin. The impact of protein is effectively nil as well. The more carbohydrates we eat, the sweeter they are, and the easier they are to digest, the more insulin is ultimately secreted. Insulin is the one hormone that coordinates and regulates the storage and use of nutrients––the homeostasis of our bodies and of life itself. However, insulin in high levels is toxic, too.
A healthy hormonal system is able to maintain blood sugars within a narrow range of 70-85 mg/dL. The insulin produced by our pancreas works to maintain this glucose homeostasis. However, when blood sugar is chronically high, as it is when we consume a diet high in carbohydrate-rich foods (like our Western diet),the resulting chronically high insulin levels lead to insulin resistance and Metabolic Syndrome––a cascade of deterioration of cells, tissues, and organs throughout our bodies.
Concomitant with high blood glucose and high insulin come the Western degenerative diseases––diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity––just a few of the metabolic diseases of civilization. Alzheimer dementia is now called Type 3 diabetes. Diabetes complications result from high blood glucose and high insulin.
Most cancers feed exclusively on glucose. The risk of cancer is greatly reduced when blood glucose is kept within the healthy range. In a recent paper (Seyfried and Shelton: Cancer as a metabolic disease. Nutrition & Metabolism 2010 7:7. ) we read:
…cancer is primarily a metabolic disease… A transition from carbohydrate to ketones for energy is a simple way to target energy metabolism in glycolysis-dependent tumor cells while enhancing the metabolic efficiency of normal cells.
This study highlights the inability of cancer cells to run on fatty acids or ketone bodies. Meaning that that very low carbohydrate ketogenic diets, which are very high in fat, can be used successfully to treat cancers that depend on glucose. Ketogenic diets have been used for decades to treat epilepsy in both children and adults.
Insulin is a master hormone that performs countless tasks. It prompts the liver to make triglycerides from carbohydrates. It drives up blood pressure by stimulating the kidneys to reabsorb sodium. It damages arteries by altering the mechanics of the blood vessels. The production of small, dense LDL particles, the most atherogenic form, is activated by insulin. It is the only hormone that controls glucose metabolism, thus it is the only hormone that drives fat accumulation. At least eight hormones release fatty acids––our dominant fuel source––from the adipose tissue for their use as fuel, but these hormones are suppressed by even a minuscule amount of insulin.
Our cells are able to metabolize both glucose and fatty acids, but they cannot burn fructose. Fructose, the sugar in fruits, honey, table sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup, is also several times more reactive than glucose. The body has mechanisms to keep its cells from being exposed to too much fructose, so it goes straight to the liver and gets stored as fat (de novo lipogenesis). It is a particularly potent hepatotoxin and, in combination with glucose, it amplifies the magnitude of metabolic devastation.
We evolved over the millennia on fats and proteins. There are absolutely no essential carbohydrates. Most of our cells prefer to “burn” fatty acids. In fact, the heart and brain function 25% more efficiently on free fatty acids. For the few cells that depend entirely upon glucose, our metabolism will convert from protein the scant teaspoon it needs each day through a process called gluconeogenesis.
What We Can Do :
Diet is a very effective way to control blood glucose, thereby reducing insulin secretion and enhancing insulin sensitivity. From Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, “The current thinking is that a lifelong reduction in blood sugar, insulin, and IGF [insulin-like growth factor] bestows a longer and healthier life. The reduction in blood sugar also leads to reduced oxidative stress and to a decrease in glycation, the haphazard binding of sugars to proteins, and glycation end-products and all the toxic sequelae that follow.” A carbohydrate-restricted, high- fat regimen predictably raises HDL, the “good” cholesterol, and lowers serum triglycerides below 100 mg/dL.
Our bodies have not evolved to thrive on industrial seed oils, sugars and refined grains. However, we can adapt modern foods to the proper mix of ancestral nutrition by eating a diet that is low in carbohydrates, and high in natural fats and cholesterol. Animal foods provide all the essential vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids (natural fats and cholesterol), and essential amino acids (proteins). Our body needs these fuels and nutrients to maintain its processes, protect itself, build new cells, and repair damage. An evolutionarily appropriate diet that is aligned with our DNA allows an optimal expression of insulin and a healthy body.
When you adopt this optimal way of feeding your fifteen trillion cells, you will experience a new vitality, increased strength and wellness. A welcome side effect may be loss of weight as your body normalizes. Of great benefit is the wonderfully satisfying and delicious food you will be eating for the rest of your life!
Clark & Nina