How the mind controls metabolism

The thoughts in your head have a direct impact on how your cells function. Here's why, and how I mitigate stress to support my metabolic health.

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The conversation around metabolic health often revolves around food: what we’re eating, what we’re avoiding. And that makes sense: As I’ve talked about before in this newsletter, food is both the building blocks of your cells and the molecular information that gives your body instructions on how to function.

But what’s easy to miss when we focus so much on diet and exercise is the role that our mind plays in metabolic health as well.

The thoughts in our heads have a direct impact on our metabolic processes, which are foundational for all aspects of health (if we don’t make energy properly, our bodies falter). Our cells “hear” what we’re thinking through hormones and other signaling molecules triggered by what’s happening in the brain. And if your thoughts give your body a sense of threat (think: anxiety, worry, fear, trauma), it can impair metabolism.

For example, if you’re scrolling through the news and have even a fleeting worried or angry thought, your body interprets that as a threat. It kicks off a chain reaction in your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, releasing hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine into circulation, which can cause your liver to break down and release glucose. These hormones can also make us temporarily insulin resistant, further elevating glucose levels. (It’s your body conserving energy for the “fight or flight” that’s coming.)

This is your thoughts literally impacting the way your cells make and use energy. Which means we have to manage those emotions if we want to achieve optimal health.

The Role of Trauma in Metabolic Health

And it’s not just acute stress. There’s now a large body of research showing that adverse events in childhood can cause lasting changes to the way our bodies regulate these stress hormones, increasing risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. If we experience a traumatic event, the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which leads to cortisol release.

Even acute trauma in childhood can leave CRH levels elevated into adulthood, and may alter baseline cortisol levels. This primes us with a heightened stress response: the fight-or-flight switch gets triggered more quickly and with more intensity.

What constitutes adverse childhood events? They can include emotional or physical neglect or abuse, household dysfunction (divorce, violence, substance use disorders, mental health issues in the family), being insulted or put down, bullying, crime, death of a loved one, severe illness, life-threatening accidents, and natural disasters. Research suggests these experiences affect more than 60% of people.

If we harbor unprocessed chronic stress or trauma, we may be biologically primed to register that the world is not as safe as it could be. This can translate via hormonal and neurologic responses into impaired metabolic health—our metabolism doesn’t work optimally if it perceives that we are in threat.

This kind of altered physiology, whether from the day’s stress or early trauma, adds a layer of complexity to achieving stable glucose and insulin levels, no matter how well we eat or how often we exercise. We hear from Levels members all the time how surprised they are at the impact a stressful day at work can have on their blood sugar, and how rises in blood sugar can even be a clue that we’re stressed.

Woman doing yoga on the coastline looking over ocean

How to Use the Body-Mind Connection to Improve Your Metabolic Health

The good news is that this relationship between your emotional state and your metabolic health can also work in your favor. Several studies show that lowering your stress levels—through techniques like diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness meditation—can have a positive impact on metabolic markers like fasting glucose, uric acid, and triglycerides.

The same is true for mitigating the effects of trauma. Forms of therapy such as cognitive-behavioral interventions can help train your body away from maladaptive stress responses. Mindfulness techniques, like breathing, meditation, or yoga, have also been shown to reduce metabolic syndrome in people with depressive symptoms.

There are several techniques I lean on (and recommend to patients) to create a mental environment of safety to encourage the hormonal and neurochemical milieu that lets my metabolism function optimally.

  • Monitoring my heart rate variability (HRV)—an objective measure of stress—with a wearable like Whoop or Lief lets me identify and mitigate HRV lowering triggers. Simply taking a deep breath when I note my HRV dropping can help.
  • Practicing slow, diaphragmatic breathing exercises to instantly stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the “calming” arm of the autonomic nervous system).
  • Meditation with a focus on the breath and noting thoughts as they arise. I like the Waking Up and Calm apps best.
  • Yoga has been shown to improve some metabolic health parameters. I love lightly heated Hatha yoga, which is slower and allows me to focus intently on breath. It doesn’t need to be a full class—just standing tall in mountain pose, feeling my feet firmly planted on the ground, inhaling while reaching and looking towards the sky, and exhaling while bringing my hands to my heart is often enough for a nervous system “reset.”
  • Spending time in nature. Hoards of research shows that getting into nature—even in a city park—has measurable impacts on health and stress markers.
  • Rubbing lavender essential oil between my hands, cupping my face, and inhaling deeply a few times. Lavender has clinical effects on reducing anxiety and can change gene expression and activity in the brain.
  • Writing it out. If I’m spinning about a problem and don’t know what to do, I’ll set a timer and write about it for 5 minutes.
  • Focusing on awe, abundance, and gratitude. Observing and noticing the astounding beauty of nature (for me, it’s often sunsets or trees!), reading Mary Oliver or Rumi poetry, learning about the complexity and beauty of science (this video about the inside of a cell always brings me awe), or writing down a few things that I am grateful for.
  • Practicing self-love. Sometimes the biggest form of threat in our lives is our own voice talking to ourselves negatively. Be mindful of that voice and consider ways to make it your biggest supporter. Loving-kindness meditations can help, as can professional therapy.
  • Reflecting on the nature of death. This is an odd one, I know, but bear with me! Stoics, Zen Buddhists, and many other traditions have meditated on death as a way to enhance life, and this is something I’ve always found, too. When we accept and embrace the ultimate certainty (death), and re-frame this “threat” as a natural part of an eternal and awe-inspiring cosmic process we are a part of, it can liberate us from existential dread and can bring lightness into our life. Marcus Aurelius Meditations or The Way of Zen provide helpful frameworks.
  • Eating to improve your brain’s functioning and mental state! I recommend these two Huberman Lab podcast episodes on this topic: How Foods and Nutrients Control Our Moods  & Nutrients For Brain Health & Performance 

Professional support: Therapy or coaching. I can’t recommend it enough. We seek support for our finances (financial advisors), cars (mechanics), physical health (doctors), fitness (trainers), and legal matters (lawyers). Why not get some professional guidance on the function of our minds—our most important asset and gift? A therapist can help identify thought patterns and maladaptive responses that we aren’t even aware of, that may be keeping us stuck in a state of “threat.” There are many online services like BetterHelp that make it easy to get started.

An emerging area: There is research looking into whether psychedelic-assisted therapy can impact the processing of traumatic events and stress and have downstream effects on metabolic health. There is also some evidence that compounds found in psychedelic plants may impact insulin secretion.

The Bottom Line

Our thoughts and mental health have a strong impact on our metabolic processes. There are many tools and resources for improving our thought patterns. Figuring out for yourself what works for you is part of the metabolic health journey and may be an important key for optimizing metabolic health.

— Dr. Casey