The key to overall health and longevity is Metabolic Health. Metabolic dysfunction is the leading driver of most diseases we face as a society, resulting in unhealthy muscles infiltrated with fat, much like a marbled steak.
Simultaneously, Muscle health has two major components: physical and metabolic. The physical involves strength and mass, while the metabolic aspect encompasses insulin sensitivity, glucose regulation, fatty-acid oxidation, and mitochondria health. Often called the powerhouses of a cell, mitochondria play a critical role in converting the food we eat into energy our cells can use. Their health determines the wellness of our tissues and organs, while their dysfunction can cause life-threatening conditions.
Currently, forty million Americans are prescribed statins to lower their LDL cholesterol caused by metabolic dysfunction, while receiving virtually no guidance on optimizing metabolic health by improving muscle quality and quantity. The more healthy muscle tissue you have to process fat and glucose, the more metabolically healthy you will be, and the less you will need to rely on pharmacological interventions.
It is absolutely possible to optimize or restore proper metabolic function by building and maintaining healthy muscle. Through training, you increase the density of muscle mitochondria—the primary energy-producing units within almost every cell of the body. This allows your body to use nutrients, such as carbohydrates and fats, and convert them into energy that can be used to power everyday activities.
A typical doctor's visit includes measuring vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse, and weight. But for a more accurate picture of overall health, your doctor should also measure your muscle mass at each annual visit, along with a strength assessment and other tests. This would provide immediate feedback about the trending direction of your muscle condition, which ultimately determines much about your overall health. Until the medical system steps up to the challenge, it's crucial that you take charge of your own longevity.
Increasing your healthy muscle mass not only changes your body's physical structure but also directs the way muscles utilize the nutrients provided through food for energy production.
To understand how muscle helps drive metabolism and why its effect is so important, it helps to grasp three core concepts:
Glucose becomes toxic to the body when too much remains in the bloodstream for too long (a state we call diabetes).
Insulin is the body's main mechanism for removing glucose from the bloodstream.
A root cause of obesity and related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and impaired fertility, is decreased insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance.
The primary sugar obtained from food is glucose—a vital nutrient essential for proper brain, heart, and digestive function, as well as maintaining healthy vision and skin. Research shows that glucose, not fat or protein, is the primary determinant of muscle metabolic fuel preferences.
The body prioritizes burning and storing glucose over fat and protein because if blood sugar levels remain too high for too long, glucose becomes toxic. Indeed, poor glucose clearance, as seen in insulin resistance and diabetes, damages the body's tissues.
We can measure the success of this process through an oral glucose tolerance test, which reveals how much time it takes our bodies to clear this sugar from circulation. The less time it takes, the more insulin-sensitive or glucose-tolerant one is said to be.
You can mitigate glucose responses by properly dosing your carbohydrates at each meal. Reaching for carb-heavy snacks can be detrimental to both your weight-loss and metabolic-health optimization goals.
Declines in muscle mass and mitochondrial function diminish the body's capacity to store and burn glucose, resulting in an overburdened insulin system that's working overtime to find places to dispose of this nutrient. This can lead to chronic fatigue, loss of strength, insulin resistance, and limitations in daily activities. To combat these effects, we need to grow our muscles and turn them into mitochondria-manufacturing plants.
Now, here's where exercise comes in. Muscle contraction during both aerobic and resistance training stimulates the uptake of glucose without the need for insulin's assistance. This insulin-independent uptake offers an additional effective mechanism for removing excess glucose from the blood.
Additionally, in response to resistance training, specifically, your body reaps the benefits of contraction-driven glucose uptake for up to two days after your workout because exercise improves insulin-stimulated glucose uptake.
During the post-workout window, the increased density of glucose transporters present in muscle cell membranes continues their work of getting rid of excess blood glucose, still with less insulin required.
Here's another benefit: the glucose stored in your muscle tissue as glycogen fuels both short, intense exercise and longer endurance training. In other words, with proper nutrition, the glycogen resynthesized after your workout gives you back the energy you need to keep training.
As you can see, this system works on a feedback loop. Exercise not only helps manage proper blood-sugar and insulin levels but also primes the muscle.
As exercise burns glycogen (glucose), it leaves the post-exercise muscle tissue primed for glucose uptake. Proper nutritional refueling then replenishes glycogen stores, helping your body meet its ongoing training needs, thereby powering this healthy energy cycle over the long haul. Understanding the interplay of these dynamics offers a lifelong solution.
In addition to facilitating glucose disposal, muscle tissue also serves as one of the largest sites of fatty acid oxidation. Fatty acids can be categorized into four main groups: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fatty acids. At rest, muscle burns fatty acids as its primary energy source.
Skeletal muscle also acts as an amino-acid reservoir, keeping these fundamental nutrients flowing in your body in the absence of food. This is the metabolic duty of muscle. If you become sick or injured, the body will pull amino acids from your available muscle tissue to repair and protect itself.
Training also boosts your immune function via peptides—small molecules composed of amino acids—released during muscle contraction. Key peptides can send signals in the body that help fight off germs and reduce inflammation.
Multiple studies have shown that the healthier your muscles, the greater your survivability when things go wrong. In fact, a person's ability to survive cachexia, a wasting disease often associated with cancer, is directly related to total muscle mass.
BENEFITS OF A MUSCLE-CENTRIC LIFESTYLE
Balanced blood sugar
Decreased body fat
Improved body composition
Now let's look at what happens in the opposite scenario, where the muscle is not sufficiently worked, hindering all the positive effects exercise can have on the whole system.
Think of muscle as a suitcase. When you continue to eat the wrong foods in the wrong quantities, you overstuff your suitcase until the excess contents spill out. In this case, what spills out is glucose, fatty acids, or amino acids, and all that substrate overflows back into the bloodstream. Somehow the body must dispose of all those extras. That's when initial disease processes begin.
Whether the trouble starts as obesity, diabetes, or other conditions, the underlying pathology remains the same.
When muscle, your main metabolic organ, gets flooded and overwhelmed, you gain fat. This fat goes on to create low-grade inflammation. When you have unhealthy muscle, poor diet choices can create postprandial inflammation every time you eat, hurting muscle's metabolic regulation and causing a whole host of other problems.
Skeletal muscle health issues often begin early in life. When we are young and seem healthy enough, we think we can get away with less-than-optimal choices—even being sedentary—because we don't see a change in clothing size. In reality, there is no such thing as a "healthy" inactive. What we commonly think of as diseases of aging are really correlated with impaired muscle.
By highlighting muscle as your target for better health, you can create positive momentum focused on what you have to gain rather than what you need to lose. Given the power of muscle to help stave off diseases commonly attributed to aging, we should be thinking of muscle as an organ for longevity.
What you do and how you live—particularly what you eat and how you exercise—dramatically affect this organ system both immediately and over the long term. Through specific, targeted behaviors, you can literally change your destiny by empowering your muscle to run the body's energy-processing and chemical-messaging system in healthy ways.
💪 As we discuss incorporating more resistance training into your health protocol, let me share one of my biohacks - E-Lyte by BodyBio - for reducing cramps after intense exercise and staying energized all day, without unnecessary ingredients.Most electrolyte concentrates are designed for professional athletes and contain high levels of sodium and sugar unsuitable for daily use. E-Lyte is formulated with more potassium, less sodium, and no sugar to mimic human blood and provide the body with precisely what it needs. It is formulated with three essential ingredients needed to restore electrolytes for perfect hydration and pH balance: Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium. Sodium contracts muscles. Potassium relaxes muscles. Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 enzymatic processes and is the force that drives potassium to relax a contracted muscle.
Pro-tip: Swap that afternoon coffee for E-Lyte for a brain and body boost without sleepless nights. Additionally, this product can be useful, especially during the holiday season, because electrolytes help prevent dehydration from alcohol and alleviate symptoms if they occur.
🌹 Join Ultimate Wellness retreat at Faena Hotel, Miami Beach to learn science based strategies for improving your Metabolic health and staying in good shape.
Sending Optimal Health & Ultimate Wellness,
Julia Smila, FDN Practitioner