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You don’t need hardcore supplements to boost metabolism, because in addition to diet, activity level, sleep, mental health, and even your environment can all influence your calorie-burning capacity (for better or worse).
In actuality, metabolism refers to any chemical reaction taking place at the cellular level in living organisms—many of them having nothing to do with weight loss.
However convenient it may be to portray it this way for commercial purposes, metabolism is much more involved than the difference in calories consumed versus calories expended.
Why should anyone without a lab coat care about this distinction?
Because even if weight loss is your only goal, boosting your metabolism safely, sustainably, and effectively requires at least a surface-level understanding of non-dietary influences on metabolism, which include:
- Activity level
- Mental health (stress)
- Environmental influences
Of course, diet is one of the most potent influencers of metabolism rate, so we’ll start there.
These foods and nutrients have been positively correlated with metabolic rate in research.
These bacteria facilitate many important functions in the areas of immune defense, digestion, metabolism, and more.
Probiotic-rich foods and supplements contain very similar bacteria that your existing microbiome can recruit to enhance the above capabilities.
A study by the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, CA, exploring the role of probiotics in obesity prevention found that these bacteria “metabolize dietary compounds and ferment non-digestible dietary foods, resulting in the formation of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).”
In other words, prioritizing probiotics in your diet enhances your body’s inherent ability to break down foods into more readily usable forms, providing a direct boost to metabolism.
The following foods are rich in probiotics:
- Kombucha (fermented tea)
For palates not averse to a little (or a lot) of heat, the chemical in peppers that makes them spicy is also proving its mettle as a metabolism-boosting agent.
A study from Peking Union Medical College in Beijing found that this compound—capsaicin—can speed up your metabolism in a few ways.
First, the summary references findings that confirm capsaicin’s ability to activate heat production (thermogenesis) in brown adipose (fat) tissue, a metabolism-boosting effect that normally takes place when a person shivers from the cold.
Capsaicin attacks fat on two fronts, per the study, oxidizing it into usable fatty acids on the one hand and even curtailing the body’s production of fat molecules (adipogenesis) on the other.
Finally, peppers can also enhance the effects of the gut microbiome.
It seems contradictory at first, but consuming any food (even fatty snacks) technically provides a boost to metabolism because of the energy cost associated with digestion.
Much of this energy is given off as heat, which is why this process is referred to as diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT).
A Yale University study examining the weight-loss potential of a protein-rich diet found that protein elicited a larger spike in metabolic rate (15-30%) (i.e., a greater quantity of DIT than carbohydrates (5-10%) and fats (0-3%).
This bodes well for dieters looking to not only lose weight, but to achieve a lean, muscular build.
How Eating Patterns Affect Metabolism
In addition to what you eat, how and when you eat can also influence metabolic rate in both directions.
The meal frequency debate (three a day vs. five a day) is anything but over, but the five-a-day crowd has somewhat recently taken a hit when it comes to their prior claims about metabolism-boosting benefits.
In fact, eating fewer meals throughout the day was found by a twelve-participant study from Masstricht University of the Netherlands to increase “RMR (resting metabolic rate) and appetite control” as compared to high-frequency eating schedules.
It’s also important to note that regularity of eating patterns is important, as sporadic and frequent changes in the daily meal/snack schedule are associated with a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome.
Finally, drinking plenty of cold water will also keep human metabolism churning above its resting rate by contributing to thermogenesis, since it has to be heated by the body before it can be put to use.
Sleep and Metabolism
Irregular sleeping patterns and/or sleep deprivation have been associated with “alterations in postprandial (after a meal) glucose and lipid metabolism” by this study from the Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, NC.
The good news is that the body is adaptable enough to correct the metabolic irregularities associated with acute sleep deprivation, and the bad news is that “recurrent prolonged partial sleep deprivation” is not so easily handled.
Exploring the mechanisms involved with sleep deprivation, satiety hormones, and metabolic rate would be a bit of a slog, so we’ve distilled this matter down to two pieces of advice:
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep every night.
- Try your best to fall asleep and wake up on a consistent schedule.
Fail in these departments, and you may start packing on pounds, or even hallucinating.
If simply drinking cold water and eating protein-rich food raises metabolic rate, imagine how much of a boost vigorous, regular exercise can give you.
It may seem intuitive that a cardio-heavy exercise program would create the greatest boost in metabolism by burning more calories than weightlifting, but that’s actually not true.
Yes, running a few miles will likely burn more calories than a lifting session of similar duration and intensity, but increasing your muscle mass actually allows you to burn more calories around the clock (even when you’re at rest) because muscles require more calories to function.
Forgive us for the cliche, but this is a perfect embodiment of the “give a man a fish” adage:
Give the man a fish (burn a lot of calories with cardio), and he will be fed for a day (will lose weight quickly), but teach a man to fish (gain muscle mass), and he will be fed for a lifetime (will burn more fat around the clock).
Of course, working out isn’t the entire picture by any means; even gym rats go to work, sit at a desk, lounge on the couch, etc.
As you likely guessed, the more you can stay in motion (or at least stay standing), the greater the increase in metabolic rate.
Even if that just means getting up from the sofa every ten or fifteen minutes and taking some laps around the house, every step counts.
Be it physical, psychological, or a bit of both, when the human brain is presented with stressful stimuli, it triggers a cascade of hormonal mechanisms that vary based on the nature and severity of the threat.
These fast-acting, complex mechanisms taking place at the adrenal medulla, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis (HPA), and other hard-to-pronounce structures that create the stress response are only meant to be temporary.
When a person is in a prolonged state of stress for whatever reason(s), the hormones designed to keep them from harm end up taking a toll on major organ systems and metabolism.
This is because many of these compounds trigger inflammation in our tissues, and others have “anti-insulin” properties, according to this article from Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.
This review confirms what dozens of studies in recent years have hinted at: prolonged stress is positively correlated to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
A Holistic Approach Is Best
Once you master the distinctions between losing weight and boosting your metabolism, the importance of focusing on more than dietary changes should become clear.
Improving your metabolism is not just about shedding pounds with an aggressive diet or cardio-heavy exercise—it’s about encouraging a beneficial shift in body chemistry by optimizing your sleeping patterns, managing stress wherever you can, and more.
These efforts are the degreaser for your body’s fat-burning engine, and when combined, may help you with the part that’s even harder than losing the weight: keeping it off.