Does this sound like you?
- You work out for hours every week (or day): cardio, running, cross training
- You are strict with your diet, counting calories or eating 1200-1400 calories faithfully
- You avoid sugar, gluten, dairy; maybe you’re a vegetarian
- You can’t lose weight no matter what. Maybe you’re even gaining weight.
- Maybe you’re also exhausted and/or not sleeping well
I get how frustrated you are! I hear cases like this weekly in my practice. Usually it’s a woman working a stressful job for 8-10 hours daily, not getting enough quality sleep, maybe juggling family life, sticking strictly to a low cal diet and amping up exercise to lose weight.
She’s feeling powerless and frustrated, like her body is turning on her (a phrase I hear regularly). Often she’ll say she’s never struggled with her weight before and all of a sudden she’s gaining weight and can’t lose it no matter what. I used to see these cases in women aged 40+, but now I’m seeing this profile regularly in women in their 20s and 30s. It feels so defeating.
2 words: damaged metabolism. It means your body isn’t able to properly utilize the glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids from your food. Your system is stressed, and you’re not burning fat because your body is in conservation mode and reluctant to give away resources (in this case, extra body fat) because it senses you’re at a deficit due to deficiencies and/or low calorie dieting.
You’re likely deficient in other nutrients such as B vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, and minerals, making it impossible for your cells to make energy. So you’re dog tired and have brain fog too. But the worst is that you can’t lose this weight that’s piling on, no matter what you try.
First the good news: “damaged metabolism” sounds so dire (hypometabolic is perhaps less so), but the body is incredibly resilient, and when given the proper nutrients it needs, you can heal! You can improve metabolic balance, feel better, and finally lose weight.
Second, before we proceed, a quick physiology lesson you may remember from biology class. I’ll be talking about your mitochondria, the little powerhouse in your cells that takes the nutrients from the foods you eat to make energy so you can function. The mitochondria are essential for energy, repair, vitality, anti-aging, and metabolism. They’re like little factories inside your cells, and they require a lot of nutrients to make enough energy to fuel you: B vitamins, carnitine, CoQ10, alpha lipoic acid, d-ribose, N-acetyl cysteine, magnesium, to name a few. The more mitochondria you have, the better you feel: you’re an energetic, fat burning machine. When your mitochondria are damaged, or you’re not getting the nutrients you need to fuel these powerhouses, they die.
A former professor of mine once said, The body needs everything all the time, and the more I study this stuff, the more I know that to be true. This is why I cringe when women hand me their ultra calorie-restricted diet journals. They’re not nearly meeting their metabolic or caloric needs to fuel their lifestyles and workouts, and their metabolism slows to a crawl. That means your brain signals to your adrenals that there is stress (lack of nutrients), so cortisol production increases, causing thyroid function to slow, which causes your system to slow way down. You body knows it’s not getting enough nutrients, so it protects you by down-regulating so you don’t burn out. You may notice constipation, thinning hair, weight gain, and fatigue at first. This can still be an issue even if your thyroid labs are normal!
I’ve been focusing a lot on calorie restriction as a main cause here, but oxidative stress (think what causes an apple to turn down after you cut it), inflammation, insulin resistance, emotional stress, junk food, toxic/chemical exposure, and even bad bacteria in your gut can contribute to mitochondrial damage.
Oxidative and free radical damage is a big one. Free radicals damage tissues and DNA, causing inflammation, which makes you feel crappy + age faster because of mitochondrial damage. Blech. Let’s recap.
Causes of mitochondrial damage
- oxidative stress & free radical damage, which cause inflammation. Overexercise can cause oxidative damage.
- calorie restriction
- emotional stress
- vitamin and nutrient deficiencies
- junk food diet: refined foods, white flour, white sugar, alcohol, too much coffee. Not enough quality protein, green things, or beneficial fatty acids
- gut infections like parasites, candida, SIBO
- high cortisol caused by stress, which leads to inflammation and hypothyroid
- stress from toxins like pollution, cleaning products, cosmetics, living in an urban environment
- insulin resistance
So, how do we fix it and finally lose weight? We need to focus on 3 key areas.
The 3 Things You Need to Fix to FINALLY Lose Weight
You’ll need to eat to nourish the mitochondria, support your adrenals, and repair or support your thyroid. Here’s a better explanation about what happens when you’re body is stressed: Any, or more likely a combination, of the above list of things that cause mitochondrial damage contribute to stress on your system, and that results in an inflamed and depleted system. You may feel joint pain, headaches, brain fog, and fatigue along with weight loss resistance. The inflammation produces cortisol which interferes with your body’s ability to produce thyroid hormones and convert T4 into T3, the thyroid hormone your body uses. When your thyroid slows down, your mitochondria shut down and die, and you feel even more fatigued. So let’s get to fixing.
First item: you’ll need a full thyroid panel. Not just TSH like your doctor runs and then tells you “everything looks fine,” but a full panel with TSH, free T3, free T4, reverse T3, and maybe even thyroid antibodies to rule out Hashimoto’s (read about that here). You can order these labs yourself here, but please work with a qualified professional who can interpret the results for you.
Your TSH might be in the normal range (between 1 -2.5 is optimal), but your other thyroid hormones, such as T3, T4, and reverse T3, may be starting to go wonky. Support thyroid with nutrients like iodine (not supplements), selenium, vitamin A, zinc, and minerals. I use this thyroid support formula. Here are my thyroid healing diet recs, and 5 thyroid rockstars.
Second item: fix and support your adrenals. Read all about that here. You can add in an adaptogenic herbal formula or tonic, but rejuvenating adrenals really has to do with fixing the stress in your life and sleeping well. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that you can pop all the supplements you want, but if you’re not sleeping and dealing with your stress, you’re not gonna get better. Read this post on how to change your lifestyle to support healing.
Third item: mind your mitochondria! You’ll need B vitamins, amino acids, CoQ10, and minerals predominantly. This looks like plenty of protein, lots of veggies and antioxidants (think bright colors), and maybe a fatty acid supplement. Think anti-inflammatory diet, but you can add grass fed red meat once or twice weekly. It’s an excellent source of zinc and carnitine, a key amino acid for fat burning. This supplement is great to nourish the mitochondria and help you burn fat. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are excellent as well. Whey protein from grass fed cows is a rich source of BCAAs. I recommend an organic acids profile test to let you know any deficiencies. It’s the best test you can use to show you just how tired and depleted your mitochondria are and help you customize a treatment protocol.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you have digestive issues such as bloating, reflux, chronic constipation, or yeast/fungal issues, you should get a stool test to see if you have dysbiosis or gut issues that can be a constant stressor on your system.
So yeah, all this won’t work if you’re still eating food that is devoid of nutrients, undereating, skipping meals, fast food, sugar, packaged food. You know, junk. These foods not only don’t provide you with anything, they actively take up nutrient stores when you process them. So think about flooding your body with nutrients. You want the highest quality foods possible, and enough to fuel your size, age, gender.
- Protein is a big one because it breaks down into amino acids that your mitochondria need. So get plenty of protein, at least half your body weight in ounces, daily. Your best sources are grass fed beef, lamb, wild salmon, sardines, quinoa (rich in aminos), cage free eggs. Chicken is fine but doesn’t offer as much as the aforementioned. Try whey protein smoothies, especially if you’re a vegetarian. Vegetarians can also supplement with branched chain aminos, and get legumes and quinoa combined.
- Antioxidant-rich veggies like leafy greens, cruciferous for liver detox, brightly colored beets, carrots, red peppers. Aim for 6 cups of veggies per day. Do this by filling 2 cereal bowls with veggies both raw (a salad for lunch or before dinner, for example) and roasted or cooked. Don’t forget fruits that are high in antioxidants, like blueberries and blackberries.
- Avocado and coconut oil: avocado is the richest source of glutathione you can eat. Glutathione is a liver-protective antioxidant. Coconut oil is excellent for boosting metabolism, as it’s easily burned for energy.
- Bone broth is mineral rich. Add turmeric for even more anti-inflammatory power. Green vegetable juices are great choices for minerals too, and they help detox.
- Supplements for mitochondrial repair include BCAA; this formula which has all the nutrients your mitochondria needs all packaged into one; thyroid support; adrenal support. Please do work with a practitioner and do the testing before you start popping supplements. You’ll need to customize these protocols to exactly what YOUR body needs. But we can all benefit from a building, nutrient rich diet.
- Weight loss can be result from deficiencies for the reasons I’ve laid out here, so cover all your bases with a good multi.
Finally, as I mentioned above, look at the big picture. How did you get here? 9 times out of 10, there was a huge stress in someone’s life that preceded a health crash. That could be a job loss, divorce, wedding, pregnancy (positive stressors, but still stressors!), a death. Putting your health back together not only means filling in the diet and deficiency gaps, but also resting, sleeping, de-stressing, and ensuring it doesn’t happen again. If you know you’re heading into a period of stress, take steps to support yourself so you survive with your health intact.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.