According to statistics, Americans are living longer than ever before in history. But are we living well as we age, or do we merely exist in a state of poor health and low vitality? The reality is that even in the absence of life-shortening malnourishment, disease, or accident, our bodies will naturally age and deteriorate. Generally speaking, from youth to old age we go from a state of thriving to a state of merely surviving. What causes these changes? And what measures can we take to prevent disease and maintain health as we age?
If you’re interested in optimizing your health and fitness—and even slowing down the aging process—you’ll benefit from an understanding of anabolism and catabolism. Although you may not be familiar with these terms, they are the basic metabolic activities that manage your life energy and health. Addressing anabolic and catabolic processes is a fundamental aspect of my approach to supporting people in enhancing their health and vitality.
A Brief Guide To Anabolism and Catabolism
Scientific observation has shown that biological changes associated with aging diminish the ability to utilize calories from food, reduce hormone function and response, depress enzyme function, and decrease the ability to fight off disease. It’s no wonder that as people grow older, energy output declines and fatigue increases.
Energy supply is governed by metabolism, which oversees and coordinates the dozens of biochemical processes that maintain life and enable us to respond to our environment. I visualize metabolic energy as a two-way street, with energy moving both inward (anabolic) and energy moving outward (catabolic). All of the biochemical processes of metabolism can be classified as either anabolic or catabolic, and both phases are essential for the maintenance of life.
Anabolic: In this phase, the body uses metabolic energy to transform simple compounds derived from nutrients into more complex substances used for the repair, rebuilding, and rejuvenation of cells, organs, and tissues. The process of anabolism influences bioenergetics, cell communication, cell proliferation, endocrine function, immunity, protein synthesis, and brain function (including behavior and mood). Anabolic metabolism is an energy-inward process that not only keeps the body and mind running smoothly, but also is the most important element to maintaining a strong healthy body, free from chronic diseases and general age-related decline.
Catabolic: In this phase, complex substances are broken down into simpler compounds to provide the metabolic energy necessary for functioning. Simply put, the energy-outward aspect of catabolic metabolism supplies the energy that makes action possible—ranging from the cellular level to fueling movement for the entire organism. Catabolism specifically relates to the ability to utilize food and the air we breathe to create cellular energy and produce outward energy, which relates to “DOING” as opposed to the inward energy that relates to “BEING.” What I do with my tools of botanical and nutritional medicine is make catabolic processes more efficient.
Increased Catabolic Activity = More Rapid Aging
The metabolic model of aging proposes that aging is fundamentally the result of dimished efficiency in both anabolic and catabolic pathways, combined with a general shift in metabolism from a balance of anabolic (the inward energy to build, heal and regenerate “to be”) activity to catabolic (a breaking down of energy to facilitate outwards “to do”) activity.
In general, young people tend to be more anabolic while older people are more catabolic. Aging is associated with the reduced activity of anabolic hormones such as DHEA, human growth hormone, sex steroid axis activity, testosterone, and thyroid hormone. Many people also experience increased abdominal fat and varying degrees of insulin resistance as they age. This is because efficient catabolic metabolism, which is vital for the conversion of food and oxygen to energy-outward activity, is impaired. Although growing older is unavoidable, a great deal of the physical and mental decline that we associate with aging is not inevitable. Much of what we think of as the normal aging process—decreased strength, diminished muscle mass, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, sarcopenia, and frailty syndrome—is actually the result of increased catabolic activity.
Restoring Healthy Metabolic Function
Maintaining a healthy metabolism is essential for longevity and vitality, and understanding and addressing the factors that influence anabolism and catabolism can help to restore healthy metabolic function.
The lowest rate of metabolism, which occurs at complete physical and mental rest, is referred to as the basal metabolic rate. Here is where mitochondria, the tiny energy factories within cells, come into play. Within the mitochondria, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are broken down into adenosine 5′-triphosphate (ATP)—the basic fuel for every cell in the body. Because they account for the vast majority of total energy production, mitochondria are essential for regulating basal metabolic rate. Although basal metabolic rate typically decreases with age, this negative trend can be ameliorated through supporting mitochondrial function with appropriate diet, exercise, and lifestyle modifications, along with the use of anabolic adaptogenic herbs and nutrients that enhance anabolism.
In addition to the normal aging process, chronic stress (including emotional stress, stimulants such as caffeine, poor diet, lack of sleep, and insufficient or excessive exercise) shifts the normal hormone balance and throws the body into a catabolic state. This causes increased oxidative damage and inflammation, diminished levels of regenerative anabolic hormones, and negatively affects other endocrine glands including the adrenals, pancreas, and thyroid.
Despite the body’s natural tendency toward catabolic activity as we age and the many factors that promote catabolism, there are numerous ways to encourage anabolic activity. When anabolic activity increases, it is reasonable to conclude that the body is functioning at a level associated with a more youthful metabolic state.
Nutrients For Enhancing Anabolic Activity
Every calorie we ingest is either used to produce energy (a catabolic process) or to form the cells of the body (an anabolic process). A healthy, balanced diet of high-quality proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates provides the foundation for anabolic support. In addition to these macronutrients, we need forty micronutrients to ensure that our biochemistry remains in harmonious balance. (For more information, see my post: The ETMS Approach To A Healthy Diet.)
Anabolic “Inward” Energy and Catabolic “Outward” Energy
Botanicals For Enhancing Anabolism
In addition to good nutrition, I rely on specific botanicals to enhance anabolic activity and energy. Many of these botanicals have been used for decades in Russia to enhance athletic performance and have been proven safe and effective. Even if you’re not an athlete, anabolic herbs support overall physiological and mental function.
- Rhaponticum carthamoides (Leuzea)
Long used by Russian athletes to optimize their performance, leuzea (Rhaponticum carthamoides) contains compounds called ecdisteroids that offer a wide spectrum of anabolic support. Leuzea enhances stress resistance, optimizes energy levels and supports normal function of the cardiovascular and the central nervous systems.
Also used by Russian athletes to enhance their training regimen, ajuga helps improve resistance to stress and supports healthy body weight, muscle mass and muscle-to-fat ratio. The ecdisteroids in ajuga encourage healthy anabolic metabolism, protein synthesis and skeletal strength.
Used for thousands of years in European folk medicine, shilajit is an adaptogen and rejuvenative tonic. It was traditionally used to support the healthy function of the immune, nerve, and excretory systems and to help maintain bone growth. Over the last century, shilajit has been studied in Russia (where it is referred to as “mumie” and “mountain rock juice”) and is valued for its anabolic activity and tonic effects.
- Cissus Quadrangularis (Veld Grape)
Cissus is an ancient medicinal plant native to Ceylon, India and Africa. In classical Ayurvedic medicine, cissus was used to support healthy bones, ligaments and tendons. Research shows that cissus contains ketosterones, which enhance healthy anabolic metabolism. ActiCissus® is a standardized extract that contains a minimum of 10% ketosterones. Cissus has specifically been shown to help with bone and cartilage regeneration.
- Epimedium brevicornum or grandiflorum (Goat weed)
Long used in traditional Chinese medicine, goat weed supports the neuroendocrine and endocrine systems, possesses an overall powerful anabolic enhancing effect, and increases peripheral circulation via its vasodilating effect. The most effective form of the herb is standardized to the flavonoid icariin, which is considered the primary active constituent.
In TCM, epimedium is classified as a ‘kidney yang tonic’ and has been used to treat cardiovascular disease, cerebral deficiency with memory loss, depression, hormone deficiencies, fatigue, impotence, infertility, irregular menses, low sperm count, reproductive deficiency low libido, sexual neurasthenia, and spermatorrhea. Epimedium is also immune activating and enhances neurological activities.
Highly revered in Chinese medicine, cordyceps is traditionally used to support deep energy reserves, endurance and physical vitality. Chinese athletes are known to use cordyceps to optimize their performance.
- Panax ginseng
This renowned traditional herb helps the body adapt to all types of stress. Numerous clinical studies have documented the effectiveness of Panax ginseng in improving the body’s ability to withstand stress while increasing metabolic efficiency and restoring a healthy level of energy.
Amino Acids For Optimizing Anabolism
I combine botanical anabolic formulas with amino acid anabolic nutrient formulas to create what I think of as the “dynamic duo.” While the botanicals support metabolic changes, specific nutrients act as companions in creating and optimizing anabolic metabolism.
Scientists have found that administering amino acid combinations of creatine, branch chain amino acids, and glutamine with co-factors such as boron, chromium and vanadium facilitates amino acid transport into cells, resulting in increased muscle protein synthesis. Other anabolic-immunonutrients include the amino acids L-arginine, L-citrulline, and carnitine. Improving amino acid delivery to the cells stimulates muscle protein synthesis and strengthens the heart, lungs, brain, liver, immune system, and bones.
Creatine is a very misunderstood supplement, primarily because of the association with body builders and the rumors of potential dangers. However, this is only an issue when creatine is misused or overdosed, which can result in nutrient imbalances and dehydration. Creatine in the form of a chelate combined with magnesium has no associated toxicity, is far better absorbed, and possesses a greater range of therapeutic value.
My preferred form of creatine is Creatine MagnaPower (MP), a patented magnesium creatine chelate that provides the body with a readily available source of magnesium while also making creatine more active by protecting it from cyclization. Creatine MP has a non-steroidal anabolic enhancing effect, and provides rehydration and endurance in times of physiological stress.
I consider creatine to be the single best nutrient for muscle health. In addition, research shows that creatine is beneficial as a supplement for cardiovascular and neurological health. I find Creatine MP combined with anabolic botanicals (such as Rhaponticum carthamoides) supplies the body with a potent combination of plant sterols and amino acids for cellular restoration, and improves muscle recovery as well as vital organ enhancement.
Additional Nutrients For Anabolic Support
There are a select few nutrients that also enhance anabolic function. When combined with a proper diet, anabolic botanicals, and essential amino acids, these additional nutrients can help to optimize energy levels, encourage lean muscle growth, reduce muscle fatigue, and support healthy levels of anabolic hormones.
- Magnesium Glycyl Glutamine
Glutamine, particularly when combined with glycine and magnesium in a chelated complex, helps the body to recover more quickly and prevents the natural breakdown of muscle tissue that occurs during endurance exercises, everyday stress, and aging. Magnesium is the most important major mineral needed for bone and muscle strength, heart health, central nervous system function, correct assimilation of calcium and potassium, and efficient enzymatic function.
- Alpha Glycerol Phosphoryl Choline
Alpha Glycerol Phosphoryl Choline (AGPC) is a phospholipid metabolite found in high concentrations in neuronal membranes. It works to increase overall strength and to support natural levels of human growth hormone. AGPC also helps improve cognitive function and liver health.
This amino acid is essential for the transport of long chain fatty acids into the mitochondrial matrix and enhances fatty acid utilization and energy production. Carnitine supports healthy cardiovascular system function and promotes recovery from muscle fatigue after vigorous exercise.
A Simple, But Comprehensive Approach Is Best
In my opinion, a decline in protein synthesis (increased catabolic activity) is the single most important indication of aging. To slow down the aging process and maintain optimal health, it’s essential to improve the balance of anabolic and catabolic processes. Anabolic restoration with diet, exercise, rest, and botanical and nutritional compounds is the foundation of my approach to healthy aging and improving resistance to all degenerative illnesses. I believe that those of us that promote a more natural way of achieving optimal wellness need to look more to the plant world for enhancing health instead of relying on drugs and replacement hormones.