Metabolic Health Matters Now More Than Ever

As we re-enter a post-quarantine world together, the subject of immune health is on many of our minds. Perhaps you’ve been exploring ways to support your immune system with nutrients, herbs, and lifestyle changes. Good job! But to take it to the next level, don’t overlook something we call metabolic health. A robust immune function depends on it, so let’s dig in.

Metabolic health means your body maintains healthy levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, HDL, LDL, as well as healthy blood pressure and waist circumference measurements — all without medication. Alarmingly, recent statistics indicate that only 12 percent of U.S. adults are metabolically healthy![1]

On top of this, a growing body of evidence indicates that poor metabolic health, indicated by things like impaired blood sugar control and excess body fat, are critical — but modifiable — risk factors in the context of our current global pandemic. The bottom line: Caring for your metabolic health has never mattered more.

How Metabolic Health Impacts Immune Resilience

Typically, the immediate response to any foreign invader is to target it directly. However, foundational metabolic health may be equally crucial. There’s a strong relationship between metabolic and immune health, and understanding it is essential for thriving in our quarantine world.

For decades, the medical community has known that poor metabolic health can impair immune response to bad bugs. However, this connection has become even more evident during the global pandemic. For example, people with pre-existing metabolic health challenges are more susceptible to the outbreak, and the metabolically unhealthy who get sick are also more likely to suffer severe complications. Poor metabolic health sets the stage for a compromised immune response in these ways:

  • Excess blood sugar may increase our vulnerability by increasing cell membrane proteins that help foreign invaders enter our cells.[2]
  • Poor blood sugar control impairs our immune systems’ frontline defenders to efficiently target foreign invaders for destruction.[3]
  • Too much body fat promotes an unhealthy inflammatory balance in the body, disproportionally heightening the immune response to invaders.[4]

In light of these findings, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and body composition may be crucial in the face of our current environmental immune challenge.

AMPK & mTOR: Key Metabolic and Immune Links

Exciting research suggests that two critical cellular signaling pathways, known as mTOR and AMPK, may also link metabolic health with the strength and resiliency of our internal immune defenses.  Activated when food and cellular energy are abundant, the mTOR regulatory pathway orchestrates cell growth and metabolism and helps the storage of energy as body fat. Over-activation of mTOR is associated with impaired blood sugar control, a disrupted inflammatory balance, and excess body fat.

The AMPK pathway is also a central regulator of metabolism and energy production. However, in contrast to mTOR, AMPK senses when food intake and cellular energy levels are low an helps boost pathways that promote enhanced energy production. AMPK activation is associated broadly with a healthy inflammatory balance, healthy blood sugar regulation, and healthy body weight.

Emerging research suggests that altering mTOR and AMPK metabolic pathways may help impact our immune defenses.[5],[6] Turning on mTOR signaling appears to play an important role in heightening the body’s response to foreign invaders, prompting the development of an excessive, inappropriate immune response. On the other hand, AMPK signaling may temper this inappropriate response and fine-tune activities that can efficiently target foreign invaders, assisting resiliency in the face of immune threats.

Lifestyle Hacks: Balance Metabolic and Immune Functions

How can we balance mTOR and AMPK signaling to support healthy immune function? Try these hacks:

  • Intermittent fasting: All the rage for a good reason, clinical studies consistently support the positive impacts of IF on cellular signaling and metabolic health, including healthy body weight and blood sugar levels. And even attainable periods of IF, such as fasting for 16 hours between dinner and breakfast the next day, can improve aspects of metabolic health such as body composition, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels, and blood sugar control.[7],[8]
  • Ketogenic diet: A high-fat, low-carbohydrate keto diet can promote the blocking of mTOR and activation of AMPK, effectively shifting the body from burning sugar to burning fat for fuel.
  • High-intensity exercise: Exercise uses up energy in the form of ATP, stimulating AMPK activity to replenish diminished cellular energy reserves. While all forms of exercise are beneficial, high-intensity exercise may be particularly helpful for increasing AMPK signaling.
  • Targeted botanicals: A variety of botanicals, including milk thistle, berberine, quercetin, and diindolylmethane (DIM), have been found to support AMPK activity. By incorporating some of these herbs into your routine may further support metabolic health during this time.

These simple, cost-effective diet and lifestyle strategies for improving metabolic health and fine-tuning cellular signaling may support your overall metabolic health and immune resilience as you create a ‘new normal’ post-quarantine.

[1] Araujo J, et al. Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2019; 17(1).

[2] Brufsky A. Hyperglycemia, hydroxychloroquine, and the COVID‐19 pandemic. J Med Virol. 92(7): 2020; 770-775.

[3] Pettersson US, et al. Increased recruitment but impaired function of leukocytes during inflammation in mouse models of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. PLoS One. 2011; 6(7): e22480.

[4] Muscogiuri G, et al. Commentary: Obesity: The “Achilles heel” for COVID-19? Metabolism. 2020; 108: 154251.

[5] Zheng Y, et al. Immunoregulation with mTOR inhibitors to prevent COVID‐19 severity: A novel intervention strategy beyond vaccines and specific antiviral medicines. J Med Virol. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.26009.

[6] Sharma S, et al. Metformin in COVID-19: A possible role beyond diabetes. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2020; 164: 108183.

[7] Rynders CA, et al. Effectiveness of intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding compared to continuous energy restriction for weight loss. Nutrients. 2019; 11(10): 2442.

[8] Arnason TG, et al. Effects of intermittent fasting on health markers in those with type 2 diabetes: A pilot study. World J Diabetes. 2017; 8(4): 154-164.

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