Crack the Metabolic Code

Americans are embracing genetic testing to help predict the future. According to a study by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, more than six in 10 parents wanted to find out for themselves, and nearly as many wanted to unlock the secrets of their children’s genes.

But the bottom line is genes are only part of our predictive health risk. As the study’s senior author points out, “Perhaps you learn you have a slightly higher risk of getting prostate cancer or diabetes—neither of which is for certain or in the near future.”

The reality is that genetic testing answers our questions less like a crystal ball, and more like a Magic 8 Ball. As kids, we had our own techniques for improving the chances that the toy’s murky window would reveal the answer we wanted. When it comes to genetic expression, James LaValle wants people to know they can positively (or negatively) affect their future outcomes by learning how to positively impact their metabolism.

While we have been focusing on the potential predictive risk for illness and disease with genetic testing, the real practical application will be in the area of nutrigenomics and pharmacogenomics. What that means is that genetic testing could influence the amount of a nutrient you need, for example, and pharmacogenomics is already being used to find out if and how a drug is going to work on you if you need drug therapy.

Short-circuits lead to insights

LaValle, a clinical pharmacist, board certified nutritionist and author of popular, practical books such as Cracking the Metabolic Code and Your Blood Never Lies, was a blue chip high-school football player who paid close attention to diet, nutrition and exercise from an early age. He also comes from a family predisposed to diabetes, and witnessed his grandmother’s loss of fingers, toes and eventually, her eyesight, due to the disease.

Although his athletic career was sidelined by injury, LaValle remained interested in health and fitness. Through pharmacy school, he continued to learn as much as he could about the body’s biochemistry and its need not only for food and nutrients, but also the impact on physical health and wellbeing from things like environmental influences and even emotions and stress. In his clinical practice, LaValle focused on understanding the potential for managing these influences to trigger positive results, from better performance to better recovery and even reduction of risk or damage. Little did he know that science would eventually reveal these same lifestyle and other influencers also drive the expression of our genes, literally turning us toward health or toward the expression of a disease.

This was a pioneering step for metabolic and integrative medicine. According to LaValle, “We are all handed a gene set, which creates our genetic potential and functions like a circuit board with some weak circuits. Put some stress — like inflammation — on the circuits, and some of those circuits may blow.”

Those short circuits can lead to illness or disease. But LaValle suggests tuning into your metabolic balance or imbalances and taking steps to redirect it.


Rethink metabolism and detoxification for results

To understand how metabolism governs our health, LaValle says we have to clear up common misconceptions about metabolism and detoxification, another hot topic for weight loss. LaValle also names a few fundamentals that are essential to managing metabolism, and one of the most important ones has nothing to do with nutrition or exercise.

Misconception #1:

Metabolism is just the mechanism for burning fat and weight loss.

Those stubborn 10 pounds are not the only indicator of metabolic issues. LaValle says there are many signs that can reveal sources of metabolic disruption, all of which ultimately can impact metabolic efficiency and the ability to lose weight. Whether it’s metabolic syndrome (an indicator of insulin resistance) or a familiar collection of chronic complaints like achy joints, a general feeling of sluggishness or digestive issues like gas and bloating, these are all sources of problems that can ultimately disrupt weight and health. So, even if it is a feeling that you’re just somehow off your game, LaValle says he listens and tries to dig deeper.

And your metabolism is shaped from as early as when you are conceived and growing in the womb. LaValle explains that nutrition, activity level, environmental exposures, genes, drug therapies, stress levels, emotional states and sleep all add up over a lifetime to determine in the present moment whether your genetic tendencies get expressed, and how.

“That cumulative state determines whether you’ll pause gracefully on the threshold of aging, or accelerate toward aging, allergies and disease conditions,” LaValle says.

Major factors that affect metabolism — factors that we can monitor and manage — include blood sugar levels, digestion and immune function, stress and sleep deficiency (without enough rest, even exercise becomes a negative form of stress), ability to detoxify well, optimal thyroid function and more.

Misconception #2:

Detoxification in the form of deprivation — such as fasting or eliminating foods for a period of time — drives waste elimination and gives your digestive system a rest.

People are looking more than ever for ways to help their body detoxify from environmental pollutants, but juice or water fasting isn’t necessarily the best way to accomplish it. “Put simply, detoxification is an ongoing, orchestrated sequence of processes — throughout the night and all day, as well,” LaValle explains. “It occurs in the liver, the kidneys, skin and the lymph. Although a fast or dietary change for a limited amount of time is challenging and can seem like a ‘ heroic event,’ you don’t need it to accomplish detoxification. There are better ways to support detox mechanisms in the body.”

Plus it’s easy to overlook the fact that a liquid fast, for example, could be adding toxins to your system if conventionally grown instead of organic produce goes into that juicer. In addition, food elimination may compound underlying nutritional deficiencies.

“Animal protein is often on the detox ‘don’ts’ list, but it is the best source of a few essential amino acids that help build glutathione and that are crucial in reducing toxins in your system,” says LaValle.

Manage Your Metabolism, Starting with Sleep

The essential ingredient in managing metabolism — regardless of your health or your genes — doesn’t require a food scale or special equipment. It’s sleep.

Like many experts, LaValle urges adequate sleep. LaValle cites studies, which found too little sleep drives up blood sugar and influences hunger hormones. Lack of ability to sleep is driven primarily by stress and production of the hormone called cortisol. You may have heard of the relationship between cortisol and weight gain, so excess cortisol very specifically impacts metabolism. It also affects neurotransmitters, which can impact appetite, and even affects digestive health and bone density.

LaValle’s top strategy for sleep? Pay attention to your stress response and the organ that collects that stress: the brain. “When there is heightened stress, supplements that are known to help down-regulate the effects of stress on the body include nutrients like magnesium and adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola and holy basil.”

He’s also a big advocate of conscious breathing. “Deep breathing is a powerful way to manage your stress response,” he says, and a means to sustain energy. “We just forget to pay attention to breath during the day, whether we’re absorbed in a task at work or even while eating a meal, so later in the afternoon, we start yawning — the body’s way of getting more oxygen into the bloodstream.”

Live for Your Metabolic Potential

While gene sequencing is intriguing to so many Americans, relatively inexpensive and readily available from companies that can process a swab test and mail the results, more of us are accustomed to getting our health information from blood tests.

LaValle suggests we need both. “Genetic testing is a representation of your genetic predisposition. For adults, blood test results reflect the lifestyle choices we’ve made up to the point when the lab work was done, and indicate where your metabolism is in or out of balance.”

Whether blood work or genetic testing, he encourages the use of this information not to predict our fates, but rather to live to our metabolic potential. “Knowledge is power. Figure out what you need to reduce your risk of future disease, and support and even optimize your health. It’s not simply the numbers on a test or scale that tell you you’re healthy: If you feel healthy, vital and well, that’s great!”