What does ‘metabolic damage’ refer to? How does it occur?

“Metabolic damage” or better known as “starvation mode” is the phenomenon referring to the body’s physiological adaptation or natural response to long-term calorie restriction or deficit. This deficit can be a result from reduced calorie intake, increased calorie expenditure via exercise, or a combination of the two.

This phenomenon involves the body responding to reduced calorie intake by reducing calorie expenditure in an attempt to maintain energy balance and prevent starvation. It is considered a natural physiological response, and is better known in the scientific community as “adaptive thermogenesis”.

Starvation mode was a useful physiological response for our hunter and gather ancestors in order to survive, but it does more harm than good in the modern food environment where obesity is extremely prevalent and widespread.

How does it occur? When you lose a lot of weight, the body’s adaptation response is to start trying to conserve energy by reducing the number of calories you burn. This is a scientific fact. As a result, this can make you feel hungrier and increase food cravings. This may cause a halt in your weight loss efforts, which can make you feel unsuccessful and miserable that you abandon your weight loss efforts and gain the weight back as a result.

Is metabolic damage real or a myth? 

As mentioned, the term adaptive thermogenesis exists in the scientific world and has been hypothesised as a factor responsible for unsuccessful weight loss interventions and reduced body weight maintenance.

As discussed, starvation mode implies that your body reduces calories expended in an attempt to restore energy balance and stop you from losing any more weight, even if you are undergoing continued calorie restriction.

This phenomenon is very real, but whether this response is so powerful that it can prevent you from losing weight, or even start gaining weight despite continued calorie restriction, is still not clear. More research is still needed in this area.

If metabolic damage does exist, how do we know if we’re experiencing it, and what can we do to stop it?

Since this phenomenon wreaks havoc on your brain, particularly the hypothalamus, signs and symptoms associated with this condition are linked to the endocrine system (hormones), immune and digestive system. Therefore, some of the signs and symptoms to look for to suggest there is some form of metabolic dysfunction are:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • Reflux or heart burn
  • Low energy/fatigue
  • Increased hunger/food cravings
  • Reduced libido
  • Oedema – fluid retention, especially in the calves or ankles
  • Anxiety, depression
  • Weight gain/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

Any form of endocrine dysfunction requires a medical and/or other health professional who can assist you back to hormone balance and optimal health. Depending on the severity of your hormone imbalance as well as any biochemical dysfunction, will determine how involved your treatment plan is.

The best thing you can do to help yourself if you find yourself in this situation is to reign in the exercise. Rest and recovery is absolutely essential and if you’re someone who is training 5 or more days a week and even twice a day, it is recommended you cut back on the metabolic conditioning and long-duration cardio. Reducing the intensity and duration of your training sessions will see an improvement. You may continue doing some strength training to help maintain muscle mass, which is prone to break down faster in these states.

Diet is essential to make sure your body is getting the right macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to help prevent further stress on the body. A dietitian can help you formulate the right plan for you.

Stress management is vital. If you have added stress from work, finances, unhealthy relationships etc. it will add to the emotional stress on the body and create more of an imbalance. Therefore, engage in some stress management activities such as yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, or even slow walks on the beach.

Sleep! Sleep is the time your body undergoes physical and mental repair. Make sure you are going to bed at a reasonable time and are getting a good night’s sleep. If you are struggling in this area, it’s important to let your health practitioner know.

How do we avoid metabolic damage altogether?

Steps you can implement to reduce your risk of any damage to your metabolism is as follows:

  • Lift weights – resistance and strength training is probably the most effective thing you can do. Studies have shown that resistance exercise can have major benefits when you’re on a diet as it will help maintain or even slightly improve your metabolic rate.
  • Consume quality, lean protein – having a diet high in protein can both reduce appetite (calories in) and boost metabolism (calories out). It can also keep you fuller for longer, reduce your cravings and late-night snacking, which can contribute to weight gain.
  • Take a break from your diet – if you are on a restricted diet, you may consider implementing “re-feeds” where you break from your usual restricted diet and eat slightly above maintenance for a few days and then go back to your diet. Some studies have shown that re-feeding can temporarily boost some of the hormones that go down with weight loss, such as leptin and thyroid hormone. This practice is best done under supervision with a dietitian or nutritionist.
  • Avoid overtraining – training or exercising excessively will lead to elevated physical stress on the body and if you’re not taking the right steps to recovery appropriately in the first place, it can do more harm than good.
  • Consume lots of fresh fruits and vegetables – try and eat a rainbow every single day. The vitamins and antioxidants are important to reduce free radical damage and fight oxidative stress, which is a major contributing factor to inflammation, lowered immune system and disease.