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Metabolic Damage: What is it and How to fix it?

At one point or another, most of us have attempted to diet in some form. Whether it was cutting carbs, going lo-cal, or even a carefully planned diet with the help of a nutritionist, we have tried something. The problem with these things is that eventually they will impact your metabolism and lead to what is called metabolic damage.

Metabolic damage, also called starvation mode, happens when our metabolism is disturbed to a point where we cannot get back to a healthy balance. Metabolic damage can lead to several problems. However, there are ways to deal with metabolic damage.

There are some clear signs of metabolic damage, which we will get into below, but the good news is that there are ways to address metabolic damage. The long-term effects of yo-yo dieting and crash dieting can cause your body to struggle to properly metabolize food. This is the basic feature of metabolic damage.

What we know is that you can deal with metabolic damage and reset your metabolism to a healthy level.

What is metabolic damage?

The body’s response to long-term caloric restriction or deficit causes metabolic damage. Often referred to as starvation mode, the body switches into a preservation mode when you deprive yourself of calories over periods of time.

Metabolic damage can come from calorie restriction, depletion of calories from exercise, or a combination of the two. This is essentially your body’s attempt to maintain energy balance and avoid starvation.

Metabolic damage in the form of “starvation mode” is actually a natural response to caloric restrictions. It is known scientifically as adaptive thermogenesis, and it evolved as a mechanism to adapt to periods of starvation in early humans. However, this natural mechanism has become problematic in our time with increased levels of obesity since it is now caused not by actual starvation conditions, but by periods of dietary restriction.

The obesity problem causes metabolic damage due to an excess of calories. When there are too many calories coming in for the body to properly use, metabolism equilibrium is disturbed. While this is obviously not starvation mode, it is nonetheless a form of metabolic damage.

In response to the problem of obesity, people are putting themselves on highly restrictive diets. They limit calories to such an extreme that it produces a shock to the metabolism. Once people have reduced their caloric intake to an unbearable level, the body goes into starvation mode. At this point, any calories that are taken in are stored. The purpose of the severe diet is defeated.

How metabolic damage happens?

Today, one of the main reasons why metabolic damage occurs is due to a caloric deficit. We take in fewer calories than we burn in order to generate energy and maintain physiological processes. This sends signals through the body to begin preserving calories and energy. Our metabolism slows down, and this is when we enter into starvation mode. Our bodies recognize the caloric deficit as starvation. 

If you are dieting or exercising to lose weight, metabolic damage will become completely counterproductive. By restricting calories or burning more calories than you take in, your body senses a state of starvation. It then begins to conserve calories, and this means you are no longer burning these calories the way you need to. Metabolic damage will also trigger the feeling of being hungry because your body is physiologically in need of calories. The final result is that everything you are doing to lose weight ultimately causes you to gain weight instead.

The most common culprits for metabolic damage are fad diets or what doctors call yo-yo dieting. Fad diets more often than not are not grounded in science and are designed to cause short-term weight loss with no lasting benefit for health or fitness. Yo-yo dieting is when you cut calories for a short time then binge eat when you can no longer handle the severe calorie restrictions. This kind of dieting will impact your metabolism and trigger the starvation mode that we call metabolic damage.

Even simple calorie restrictions associated with some normal diets can affect metabolism. Studies have shown that as you lose weight, your body slows down on the number of calories you burn. This phenomenon is more pronounced in groups who already struggle to lose weight Postmenopausal women are particularly sensitive to this.

There are some complexities to consider with respect to what we call metabolic damage. Your metabolism and the number of calories you burn can be split into four categories each of which operates at a metabolic rate that is specific to that category. These things are all interdependent and metabolic changes will affect all of them. But each system that burns calories will be impacted by metabolic changes in its own way.

The four categories of metabolic systems are as follows:

  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR): this is the number of calories your body burns in order to maintain vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and brain function.
  • Thermic effect of food (TEF): The number of calories you burn in digesting food. This is usually about 10 percent of your caloric intake.
  • Thermic effect of exercise (TEE): the number of calories you burn in the course of daily activities.
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): This is basically the number of calories you burn just by moving around. You are not even aware of most of these actions.

Taken together, this is the total of your metabolic activity. As you lower the number of calories you take in, each category will be impacted and each will adjust to accommodate reduce levels of calories. When we talk about metabolic damage, we are actually talking about a complicated physiological dynamic.

It is important to note that the term metabolic damage is something of a misnomer. Starvation mode, or adaptive thermogenesis, is a normal reaction to a caloric deficit. There is not necessarily any actual damage to the metabolism. What happens is a metabolic reaction to a specific set of conditions. Your body has simply adapted to a certain set of metabolic conditions. What this means is that the metabolic changes can be corrected with the right combination of diet and exercise.

Metabolic Damage Signs and Symptoms

Calories provide fuel for both the body and the brain. When you get into a calorie deficit, the kind that leads to metabolic damage, you are inevitably going to experience a problem with both mind and body.

Metabolic damage will impact every physiological process. The endocrine system can become compromised. Hormone production can become unbalanced. You may even experience mood problems.

Two common signs that you may be experiencing metabolic damage are dieting and exercising but not seeing any change in weight. Or, you may have been making progress with a diet or an exercise program but suddenly this progress stops. In both cases, it is likely that your body has switched into starvation mode and is now conserving calories rather than burning them.

There are a number of signs and symptoms that can flag metabolic dysfunction or metabolic damage. These include:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Reflux or heartburn
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Increased hunger and food cravings
  • Reduced libido
  • Edema -- fluid retention, especially in the calves or ankles
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weight gain or stubborn weight loss
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Irregularity or cessation of periods in women
  • Low immunity, recurring and/or prolonged colds and flu
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in mood

Keep in mind that all of these things can be symptoms of other conditions. But if you are experiencing these symptoms, you may want to consider metabolic damage as a potential culprit.

How To Repair Metabolic Damage? What to do about it?

If you think the symptoms detailed above are the result of metabolic damage, the best thing to do is see your doctor. Some of these symptoms can be signs of a hormone imbalance or problems with your endocrine system. These require medical attention.

To prevent metabolic damage, experts recommend some simple things to help.

  • Lifting weights can help guard against metabolic damage. Studies have shown the resistance training tends to reduce the possibility of developing the starvation syndrome associated with metabolic damage.
  • A high protein diet can also help prevent metabolic damage. The calories you get from macronutrients like protein tend to not break down in quite the same way as carbs.
  • Take breaks from your diet. In order to avoid putting your metabolism into a state that operates like starvation, simply take periodic breaks from your diet to replenish your caloric intake. 

If you are already dealing with metabolic damage, there are some steps you can take.

  1.     Avoid overtraining

It is important to exercise and to be active. But it is just as important to not overdo it. If you are working out 5-7 days a week, or if you are one of those who work out twice a day, you should cut back. Reducing the frequency and intensity of your training can actually maintain muscle while rebuilding metabolic balance.

  1.     Maintain a balanced, healthy diet

You can certainly pay attention to your calorie count and cut calories. But you need to eat a variety of foods periodically to keep a steady flow of calories. If you focus your diet on whole foods, your metabolism will re-orient toward burning calories during digestion.

This moves you away from a starvation mode.  

  1. Reduce stress. Stress management is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy metabolism. Stress impacts your basal metabolic rate, and this will destabilize your metabolism overall. Sleep is the best medicine for this. Taking time for stress management will help repair metabolic damage.
  2. Maintain a healthy gut. Research is increasingly showing that a healthy intestinal flora and a healthy stomach have a serious impact on metabolic balance. The hormones that control hunger originate in the intestines and the stomach, and these will trigger the way you take in calories.

Finally, some helpful hints for repairing or avoiding metabolic damage:

  • Avoid fad diets. These rarely work and most of them are not healthy.
  • Increase in protein intake. Proteins provide more efficient calories and they make you feel full longer.
  • Eat every three hours. This encourages your metabolism to keep working at a healthy rate. 
  • Avoid processed foods. These things require little effort to digest because they have already been partially digested in processing.

Metabolic damage is largely the result of allowing your metabolism to become deprived in one way or another. Some simple steps like eating right, doing the right types of exercises, and managing your stress levels can go a long way toward restoring your metabolism to a healthy balance.

Wrapping things up

Dieting and exercise are a part of our culture. Most of us will take on one diet or another, and nearly all of us exercise at some level. One problem associated with dieting and exercising in ways that are not all that healthy is metabolic damage.

When we deprive our bodies of calories, or when we burn more calories than we take in, we go into a metabolic state to prevent starvation. This is a natural phenomenon, one that evolved to conserve calories and energy.

With the obesity epidemic, people have been cutting calories in ways that are not healthy. This reaches a point of diminishing returns in the form of metabolic damage.

While there are some serious problems associated with metabolic damage, most often the signs and symptoms are forms of discomfort. However, you can prevent metabolic damage with some healthy eating and exercise programs.

If you are dealing with metabolic damage, there are a number of fairly simple steps you can take to restore your metabolic rate to a normal level.

We all want to maintain a healthy weight and stay fit. But it is crucial that we go about dieting and exercise in ways that do not compromise our metabolism. By triggering starvation mode in our metabolism, we defeat the purpose of dieting and exercise. we no longer see any benefit from either.

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