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How To Tell If Your Metabolism Is Healthy: 3 Tests To Ask For, Says An MD

Jason Wachob
May 19, 2020
Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
mindbodygreen Podcast Guest Catherine Shanahan
Image by Kristianne Koch x mbg Creative
May 19, 2020

If there's one determinant of overall well-being and longevity, perhaps it's your metabolic health. After all, while nearly 35% of all U.S. adults were estimated to have metabolic syndrome1, a lot of cases in the country remain undiagnosed: In fact, "A person who is seemingly healthy can have an undiagnosed metabolic problem," board-certified family physician Cate Shanahan, M.D., tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. 

Underlying health conditions are certainly something to note, as we've seen with the global pandemic; that's not to say you should be perpetually worried, but it's worth it to make your metabolic health a priority. If anything, the novel coronavirus has taught us to be even more vigilant when it comes to screenings—we don't want any health conditions to be swept under the rug, only to turn up past the point of no return.

According to this M.D., we should all make sure our metabolic health is in tiptop shape (as a nutrition consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers, she knows a thing or two about how to optimize our metabolism for performance). The medical jargon can get a little technical, but it's not so difficult to understand when you break it down; here, Shanahan outlines three important blood tests to help determine your metabolic health (plus an easy way to test it at home): 


HDL-to-triglycerides ratio

First things first: Check your triglyceride-to-HDL ratio. You should be able to check this ratio during your standard lipid panel, which measures your HDL ("good") cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and triglycerides. But while some doctors may zero in on LDL numbers, Shanahan explains the importance of looking at the "good" cholesterol in your body: "If the triglyceride number is more than two and half times the HDL, it's an indicator that your body fat is not accepting shipments of new fat quickly enough," she says. "So, the triglycerides stay in your bloodstream for too long." Which is why you'd want an ideal ratio of 1:1 (or even more HDL than triglycerides) for optimal metabolic health. Steven Gundry, M.D., cardiologist and functional primary care physician, agrees: "One of the strongest predictors for preventing heart disease is having a good HDL-to-triglycerides ratio," he's told us. "So your HDL should be higher than or equal to triglycerides." 

That 1:1 ratio may not be perfect, so don't stress over the precise number. But if your HDL is under 50, and your triglycerides is over 50, you may have reason to be concerned, says Shanahan. 


Fasting blood glucose

You'd typically measure your fasting blood glucose with a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), which looks at your electrolytes (sodium, calcium, and potassium) and tests for your liver and kidney function. Nonetheless, Shanahan touts this test as paramount for assessing metabolic health; "If your fasting blood sugar is consistently over 90 mg/dL, your average blood sugar may be in the prediabetic range," she explains. 

Functional docs would agree: While a fasting blood glucose of less than 100 mg/dL is considered "normal," most would like to see that number at around 70 or 80 mg/dL, integrative physician Kristann Heinz, M.D., R.D., told us when explaining the CMP blood test


Blood pressure 

Do you have high blood pressure? According to Shanahan, "If your blood pressure is higher than 125/75 on a consistent basis, you could have a mild or more severe metabolic problem." That said, add blood pressure to the list of tests to ask for at your routine checkup. It'll likely already be part of the scheduled programming, with that quintessential sphygmomanometer along with its inflatable rubber cuff. 

Just make sure to reference your past measurements, especially if they've been high over the last couple of checkups; if you're facing some consistent high numbers, you may want to carve out some time to discuss it with your doctor. 

An easy way to test your metabolic health at home (with no blood tests).

Let's face it: It may be a while before you find yourself in the doctor's office again for a routine checkup (especially if you just had your annual appointment). While you should keep these three tests in mind for your next one, Shanahan does offer another easy tip to assess your metabolic health, no blood tests required. "It all comes down to the health of your body fat," she explains. 

Here's what she means: After your body burns off all the calories you've eaten during a meal, it should be able to burn your body fat for fuel (in place of the food). When your body is unable to burn your body fat, it remains stored in your body and becomes "toxic," says Shanahan. 

The good news? Your body is smart, and it gives you signs that your body is not burning your body fat for fuel: "One key thing to pay attention to," Shanahan notes, "is how do you feel when you've gone longer than you normally do without eating anything? Are you starting to feel hangry or have brain fog?" 

If so, that could be a sign your metabolism isn't burning your body fat as efficiently (and the reason you're seemingly always hungry). Even though you have body fat to burn as fuel, your body may not be able to, leading to hunger pains right after you've burned off breakfast. 

Of course, the aforementioned blood tests will be able to offer more precise information about your health (aka, just because you're feeling hungry doesn't mean you have an underlying metabolic condition). But also don't skimp on your intuition—as Shanahan says, "One of the most important signs is just how you feel."

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Jason Wachob author page.
Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO

Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.