Fueling Life: Unlocking the Power and Importance of Metabolism

Fueling Life: Unlocking the Power and Importance of Metabolism

Megan Lyons is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, has a Masters in Holistic Nutrition from Hawthorn University, and is double Board Certified as a Clinical Nutritionist and Holistic Nutritionist. 

Leslie Danford: Can you tell us about you and how you ended up in this field? Tell us your journey.

Megan Lyons: Everyone has a long journey. The short version of it is that I was always academically curious, I love learning about anything. And so when I went to college and was choosing my major, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but I looked to my role model who is, and was my dad. He was in business, and I didn't really know what that meant but I thought, “Okay, I'll be in business, too”. And my college, Harvard Undergrad, didn't have a business major. So I studied the closest thing to it, which was economics. I loved economics. I'm so glad I studied it. It taught me a lot about the way to think about the world and just many things in general. But then again after college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I just followed the path that everyone else wanted to do, which was management consulting. I turned to an opportunity that I didn't really even choose for myself. I was just following the path, but I turned it into something that I truly loved. 

I learned so much from that opportunity. I got to work with a lot of different retailers and really fascinating businesses. But through that time, I was really focusing on my own health and realizing that I had been all over the spectrum– I had been on the standard American diet. I had been truly not caring about my health and probably treating my body poorly with alcohol and things like that. In college, I had been over-obsessed with exercise and restrictive nutrition. And none of those really led me to feeling amazing. So I went on an exploration for myself and tried to figure out how I could actually feel amazing and that was just the domino that started everything else. So once I figured it out for myself, I knew I had to share it with other people. I ended up leaving management consulting in January of 2014. I started my business on the very same day, and I haven't looked back since. I absolutely love what I do now. And I can finally say I'm doing this because I was meant to be here and not just that I'm following everyone else's path.

Leslie Danford: That's amazing. So many aspects of that story resonate with me, but I think it's funny how life kind of steers you and you end up where you're supposed to be at the end, which is awesome.

Megan Lyons: Yes, and I'm grateful for all those parts of the journey, too.

Leslie Danford: Yes, totally. So when we chatted, you had mentioned metabolism. I know that you do a lot of work on metabolism. I think most of us know what metabolism is, or we think we do. But can you give us an overview? Why should we care about it? How important is it? Why does it matter?

Megan Lyons: Yes, metabolism is everything. We think about it just in terms of the calories we burn and if we can fit into our skinny jeans, or something like that. Technically that all is part of it. But metabolism in a broader sense is how we turn food into energy– how we break it down, how we utilize it, how we turn it into muscle tissues, how we use it to fuel our organs, how we use it to maintain our body temperature– all of this kind of stuff. Literally everything in your body is governed by your metabolism. So, the reason I care most about metabolism is energy. If we can't extract food, or if we can't extract energy from our food, we feel bad, we don't get up and go to do all the things we want to do in life. 

And for me, that's the primary driver of why I want to take care of my metabolism. If we're not appropriately using the nutrients from our food, we have a lot more cravings. And then there's the body composition that I mentioned. Our balance of muscle and body fat, our body size, and all of that. And then, most importantly, long-term health. Our metabolism very significantly governs our risk of chronic diseases and unfortunately, at least most of the world as well, is not metabolically healthy. So it really is a concern and I hope everyone listening becomes more interested in their metabolism after today.

Leslie Danford: That's interesting. So you mentioned 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. I think that's the number you said, so tell us about that. Why is that? And that's a daunting number. That's not just more than half, that's like almost everyone.

Megan Lyons: It really is. We are the minority, and I say that because I'm in the minority now but I haven't been my whole life so it's not that I'm just sitting up on this nutrition pedestal. There are obviously 88% of us who have experienced these things. 

And so the way they define metabolic health in this study that defined 88% are five factors and these five factors are the indicators of something called metabolic syndrome. To have metabolic syndrome, you have to have three of the five factors in order to officially be diagnosed with it. But the 88% number just comes from if anyone has any of these factors. These are high blood sugar; excess abdominal obesity, so fat around your belly line or your waistline; low HDL, which has commonly been called the good cholesterol; and high triglycerides, which is that third component of cholesterol. So, oftentimes when we think about something like blood pressure or cholesterol, people might not associate that with the metabolism that they're thinking of– how they fit into their jeans– but these things are intimately connected. They're directly linked to incidents of things like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and stroke– all kinds of things that obviously we all want to avoid.

Leslie Danford: That's fascinating. I definitely would not have thought that blood pressure or even cholesterol are related to metabolism. How are those things connected? How do those things link in?

Megan Lyons: Yeah, great question. So from a very basic level when we think about blood pressure, a lot of us think about sodium. I'll tell you right here that it's a little bit more complicated than sodium, but we can make the connection by thinking that why in the world would sodium impact our blood pressure? That's because the way that we break down and utilize nutrients: our macronutrients which are carbs, protein, and fat; micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and all that kind of stuff. The way that we break down and utilize those nutrients impacts the way our body functions. So for example, high sodium consumption, at least in those who have what's called sodium sensitive hypertension, can cause an imbalance in the way blood circulates through your body. That higher force of blood through your body weakens your blood vessels. Basically– I'm simplifying it a little bit– it all comes back down to how we're breaking down those nutrients and how those impact our organs.

Leslie Danford: So fascinating, it gets complicated really fast. So you mentioned energy in the beginning that really resonates with me. I feel like energy is the most precious commodity, right? Because if you don't have energy you're not even getting out of bed. Really, harvesting and applying it to achieve your hopes and dreams show us your best self. So I completely get that. 

My next question was, How do you know if you have an unhealthy metabolism? And I'm wondering, is it like, “You're just low energy”? Are there other signs? What do people come to you with that tells you they might have an issue in this area?

Megan Lyons: Yeah, low energy is a telltale sign. But honestly, a lot of people don't know that they have low energy because it's kind of decreased over years or decades, or they felt this way their whole life, or they just feel like everyone in their adult years has low energy, or whatever. I will say that, from my perspective, I never knew what high energy felt like until I had it. I wouldn't have told you 20 years ago that I had low energy but now looking back I'm like, “My gosh, I had really low energy”. It was hard for me to get through the day without caffeine, or yawning all the time, or feeling like I needed a nap– things like that. So you're right, energy is a huge one. Oftentimes, weight fluctuations are a sign of an unhealthy metabolism. So, for some people. if they're dealing with excess body weight, they kind of think, “Yeah, it's the cupcakes I've been eating” or something like that.

The people I'm talking about here are the people who are truly feeling like they're doing everything and they're still gaining weight. Or at least, they're in a weight plateau. Or maybe, they’re eating healthily all week, and then they have one day on the weekend when they eat a couple pieces of pizza or something like that and that causes the scale to bump up, like five pounds. Just these all-of-a-sudden dramatic fluctuations or the inability to lose weight, even if you're living a pretty healthy lifestyle, are signs of a slow metabolism. And then, we have gut health because people don't think about the fact that constipation is a direct sign of how your body is breaking down and utilizing food. So the stuff that comes out in the toilet– two thirds of it is bacteria, but some of it is food as well– and if that's not passing through us because our gut health isn't right, then our body cannot use food appropriately. 

So, constipation and temperature control. That's a sign of lots of things, maybe thyroid which is also related to metabolism. But in general, feeling cold, menstrual irregularities, hormone changes, or hair loss: any of these things can be a sign of a slow metabolism.

Leslie Danford: Wow, that covered a lot and I feel that probably a lot of people that are resonating with those points. Because to your point, you might just kind of accept something as normal, but then it's like, “Wait a second, maybe that”. So let's say you meet with a client and they have some of these symptoms, how do you determine if it’s just slow, or if it’s just like any issue?

Megan Lyons: Some people can have a too-fast metabolism. Honestly, that's a little bit more rare. These people tend to be more on the hyperthyroid side, so they're feeling very anxious all the time, or they're losing more weight than they should be, or they just are kind of wired all the time. This is an issue as well, but in my practice– maybe it's a bias on my client base, I don't know– but I would say 95% of people with an unhealthy metabolism are on the slow side and 5% are on that fast side.

Leslie Danford: So I do want to come back to the gut health thing because when you explain it that way, it's very logical. But before we go there, what does someone do about this? Where do you start? Is there kind of basic blocking and tackling everyone does? Or is it very customized? Talk to us about that..

Megan Lyons: So the very first step is to nourish your body very well, and this is where I tell my clients, “You have to trust me. I've seen thousands of people in similar positions to you. Everyone's situation is different”. But, they're very reluctant to eat more food. When their perceived problem is that their body can't lose weight, that they're stuck at this plateau, and they've been cutting their calories and eating all the low-cal food and all of this kind of stuff, and then I'm all-of-a-sudden asking them to eat more, It feels really uncomfortable.

But your body reacts to nourishment just as much, or more, as it reacts to calories. So, if you have been cutting your calories drastically more and more and more and you're not losing weight so you cut them even more and you're not losing weight, your body kind of freaks out and thinks “My goodness, we must be in a famine or in some kind of stressful situation. I'm gonna help her out. I'm going to conserve energy and slow her metabolism, so that she doesn't burn as many calories so that she stays alive”. So we need to reassure our body that we’re not in a famine, and that starts with nourishing our bodies. 

I'm not telling you, go eat three gallons of ice cream a day and 18 chocolate bars or something like that, but I am telling you to eat a lot more vegetables and to really make sure you're hitting your protein intake. Make sure you get those macronutrients that I said– proteins, fats, and carbs– and the micronutrients as well– all the vitamins and minerals– and we don't have to track every single vitamin and mineral. That's impossible, but just being sure whether it's through vitamin ease through a great variety of food. Hopefully, both of those things. Making sure that we're getting a broad spectrum of nutrients. It's not just about lower calorie, it's about more nutrients. That's a really delicate balance, but it takes a little trust. 

But the second major factor is to balance stress. Almost always, I see a slow metabolism go along with stress. And so this is the hard one. It's easier to say, reduce or balance stress than it is to do it. But these are things like stress management, practices taking a walk outside, without technology. Doing some meditation, doing some breathing, just taking a pause in the day, prioritizing sleep. Magnesium is just such an amazing nutrient for our sleep and our overall health. Things like limiting that blue light, all of these things help our stress management. So it's those two factors that mainly nourish your body very well and balance stress that are the first steps.

Leslie Danford: The foundation, that's really interesting. And then the nourishment, you mentioned more because I feel like I've heard, it's like, you have to eat a certain number of times per day more often. Is that true too? Or is it just a matter of all the good nutrients getting in somehow?

Megan Lyons: So there are some very specific situations. Maybe if someone has severe blood sugar dysregulation or maybe– I don't actually work with people who are training for fitness competitions but if I did– I would optimize their timing or I can think of a couple of other conditions but in general that matters a lot less than people think it does. I don't want you literally grazing on sugar all day. So the example would be I just take one jelly bean but I do that 35 times a day even those little jelly beans become a hit to your blood sugar. So something like that is not optimal but whether you feel better with three meals a day, or you feel better with two meals and two snacks, or whether you feel better in a shorter eating window versus longer eating window. Honestly, it just doesn't matter as much as people think. The only other caveat I will say, is for people who are under a severe amount of stress, sometimes shortening the eating window and extending that intermittent fasting period is actually counterproductive. So when I have people in extreme stages of hormonal change, or extreme phases of stress, or they’re training for an Ironman or something like that, I'm going to tell them, “Cut the intermittent fasting”. Otherwise, it's whatever makes you feel good.

Leslie Danford: That's great. And I know we talked about that kind of intuitiveness of “Listen to what your body needs”. So that's great to hear from you that, if you want to eat five small meals, great, like whatever works. And then on the stress point. So interesting. It's funny as you were talking, you said “Go for a walk”. I was like, that sounds great. Then you said without technology. 

Megan Lyons: I know it's so hard, but for me, I like to take it in steps, so at least my walk is no exception. I'm not scrolling through emails during the walk because honestly, I get the physical benefit but I don't really get them in a mental benefit. If I'm swelling through emails, if I can do it, if I have the mental capacity to just do what I call an ‘awe walk’ which is, you just look around and you try to be awed by your surroundings. That's amazing. But if I'm like, my brain is just too crazy right now, I'll do a podcast something like that to meet me in the middle. But, I really do think the best is without technology.

Leslie Danford: It’s hard. You have to be very intentional about it, because otherwise you're getting pulled into every little thing. But maybe it's motivating, though, to know that it sounds like not only on a walk. For example you're bringing down your stress, but you're also getting your body moving. There's probably a lot of benefits there, and that links back to your metabolism. So, depending on what motivates people, you've got a lot of benefits going on there.

Megan Lyons: Absolutely.

Leslie Danford: So, if somebody goes through these basic blocking, tackling I imagine, depending on the person, you're going into more detail, they get their metabolism back on track– is there like, maintenance work? And I'm kind of asking too because maybe somebody doesn't have an issue, but they want to just make sure they're kind of keeping their metabolism as good as it can be. What are your tips on that front?

Megan Lyons: Yeah, I am very conscious about the way that I phrase this to myself and to others which is that I get to pay attention to my health every single day. I don't think of it as a gift for me to pay attention to my health every single day, and what I mean by that is, “Okay, maybe right now I am metabolically healthy. My lab work will say I'm in that 12%. But tomorrow, I decide that I'm just gonna eat, I don't know, donuts for every single meal for the next three months. I'm no longer going to be metabolically healthy. And for the audience who might not know me, if you want to eat a donut here and there, that's totally cool. I'm not bashing on donuts. But if you only eat donuts for three months, I guarantee your body is not gonna like it. And so, I get to stay vigilant about the things that make me feel best, which means continuing to nourish my body, paying attention to getting those vegetables and all of that protein– most of us are under consuming protein–, making sure I'm getting that wide variety of micronutrients, making sure I'm continuing to manage stress. Our bodies are resilient to little blips like, “A very stressful day, no problem at all”. But if it's a very stressful year with unrelenting stress, and I'm not taking care of myself at all, I'm gonna feel the impact. So it's all those things that we did to heal our metabolism and we can take down the vigilance a little bit but: get to pay attention to it, move our bodies, keep nourishing ourselves, challenge our brains, keep getting sunlight. All of these things continue to help.

Leslie Danford: No, that's great. I love the way you describe it. You get to do it because the way you're talking about it it's self-care really. I think ‘self-care’ is thrown around a lot, and what you're talking about is actually literally caring for your body so that it will serve you and it's like, “You live in there, you want to take care of it, you want to put good gas in your car, and you want to take care of your body.

 It is a privilege, right, to be able to invest in yourself. And, I think for some people– maybe I have this issue– sometimes I feel guilty taking time for myself. When I have pressures, family, work, whatever. But the reality is that you will be yourself if you do. Make time to invest that way. So I love the way you describe that. Okay, so you had talked about gut health previously. So where does that fit in? the constipation thing that you said I had never thought about it that way, but that actually is very logical. In terms of processing food, how that's working is sort of an indication? But tell us more in terms of gut health metabolism, how does it fit in?

Megan Lyons: Absolutely. So many of us these days have heard of something called leaky gut, which is also called intestinal permeability. And a lot of people have leaky gut. The research is all over the place, but some research suggests that 70% of American adults will have leaky gut at some time in their life. So, this is pretty prevalent. What leaky gut is a gut lining– there should be a very fine mesh screen that only lets in teeny-tiny things into the bloodstream– that gets turned into a chain link fence with bigger holes in there. And now, all this kind of stuff is escaping into the bloodstream that shouldn't be in there, like chunks of food instead of little nutrients. And what happens here, is this causes a lot of inflammation. People have also probably heard of inflammation, for example, when you sprain your ankle it gets hot and puffy and swollen, and that's your immune system working. But if that's happening, all throughout your body, we tend to feel bloated, we tend to feel fatigued. We tend to feel a lot of these things that I was describing with an unhealthy metabolism before and the lining of your gut is so damaged that you can't absorb those nutrients. So now I'm eating food, I'm eating the same amount of calories from before, but I'm creating all of this inflammation and I can't absorb the nutrients, which means I'm craving more food. If my body can't get in the nutrients, then I continue craving more and more and more food and then my metabolism gets less and less and less healthy. So, we really need to take care of our gut. We need those good gut bacteria, in our colon, to be able to chew up the nutrients and turn them into good stuff for us, and be able to again absorb those nutrients and feel energized, reduce cravings, all of that kind of stuff. So gut health is very, very connected to everything. 

Leslie Danford: That makes complete sense. It's like if you had a very efficient gut, you could consume 2,000 calories and get a certain amount of nutrition and if you have an inefficient gut, you have to like up the calories, just to get what you need. I never thought of it that way.

Megan Lyons: The more scientific name is intestinal permeability, so it just becomes more permeable. And our body is doing the right thing by attacking that. So if a chunk of orange gets into my bloodstream instead of just vitamin C my body attacks it. Orange is not supposed to be in the bloodstream. It's an effective process by our body. It just leads to a bunch of not great symptoms.

Leslie Danford: Wow, I don't think I ever fully realized what that was until you described it that way. What do you do for your gut to make sure you're as efficient as possible and avoiding issues like leaky gut?

Megan Lyons: Yeah, great question. So unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you take it, we want to start by reducing anything that we know is irritating to the gut. So ultra processed food, things that you look at the ingredient list and you're like, “I don't know any of these. There are 50 things on this ingredient list and I don't have any of them in my pantry”. Things that irritate the gut lining include any kind of artificial colorings, artificial sweeteners, any kind of excessive high sugar, alcohol-added ingredients like low quality oils. Anything like that is going to irritate the gut lining and cause that permeability. 

If you already know you have a sensitivity to gluten or dairy or eggs or something like that and you have leaky gut, now is a really good time to pull that food out for a little bit of time, because perpetuating the inflammation and then, shockingly to many, stress again, is intimately connected to gut health. It’s connected to that vagus nerve that links our brain and our gut. That's the biggest cranial nerve in our body. And that's a direct communication between our emotions and our gut health. So we want to do all of those things at the same time. So most of that is kind of like the integrity of the actual system. But at the same time, we want to build in the good gut bacteria and we do that with probiotics– having good prebiotics from our food– and just making sure all of the workers in the system are fueled.

Leslie Danford: So interesting, I definitely heard that ultra processed foods make it harder for us to absorb nutrients, but I didn't realize that was connected to gut permeability. Because I know with Vitamins, one of the reasons we developed the immune support product with the magnesium, zinc, and the vitamin c in it is because it's hard to get all that from your food, as it is less nutrient dense than it used to be. 

If you're eating processed foods, you're not getting it all, but it's really connected to gut health too and it’s that, if your gut is healthier, you're gonna get more out of your food and you'll need to add less. It's all very connected. Of course we're a system, but I think it's easy to forget sometimes when you're troubleshooting problems, that it is a system stress to your point. So, the stress levels, could you just dive a little bit into that? How is gut health impacted by that? If you're stressed, is it like, you're stressed for a day you're stressed for a week, and what does it actually do?

Megan Lyons: Yeah, great question. So one is on a nutrient level, you just mentioned magnesium which is my favorite thing to supplement with, and you're right that we could get it from food without any kind of supplementation a hundred years ago. I eat more leafy greens, chocolate, and nuts than anyone. I know those foods are all rich in magnesium, but because of the quality of our soil, like you said, it's not very bioavailable and stress burns through, plain and simple. When you're stressed, you use more magnesium. Stress depletes b vitamins. So, oftentimes people who are experiencing stress need to supplement with magnesium from something like vitamins, or really, really loading up on their leafy greens, but I don't know anyone who's gonna eat 15 servings of leafy greens a day, so if you can, more power to you, too. 

Yeah, so Part One is nutrient depletion. But then Part Two is what I mentioned with that Vagus nerve. So you can think of the Vagus nerve as a bidirectional highway between the brain and the gut, and the brain is sending the gut messages that says, “Stress alert”, and that tells the whole function of the gut to kind of ease up and stop. Because let's say I was running from a lion and that was the stressor. Now is not the time to really care about absorbing my nutrients very well or anything like that. That's a longer term digestion and absorption. So our body just kind of shuts off those functions when we're in high periods of stress, which makes sense if you really are running from a lion, but today, when my inbox is full or something like that. my digestive system will be fine to keep going when I'm just sitting here at my computer, so that's the brain to the gut. But then it also goes from the gut to the brain. And the gut is actually where a lot of our happy hormones or neurotransmitters are made. So many people have heard, there's more serotonin made in your gut, then your brain. That's true. Serotonin is something that makes us feel good, but if our gut is not functioning very well, it doesn't get made. And then those don't get shuttled up to the brain and make you actually feel worse.

Leslie Danford: Yeah, a lot of it's funny how a lot of what our body does links back to when we were cavemen. Maybe not so relevant anymore, but I took a note about stress and magnesium. I feel like I could go, “Do we need to do a deep dive on that or something?” but that is so fascinating and super helpful. What I was going to ask is, what sort of benefits can people experience when they've addressed their metabolism? But maybe if you have a case study of somebody you worked with in general, or tell us, what are the upsides, because it is work, right? 

Megan Lyons: Great question. The truth is, I have a bajillion case studies, but I'm thinking about one person, and I'm gonna be very careful to change her name, but make sure I remember it. So, it's gonna be June. This person is named June. I'm guessing, maybe 39 or 40 when I started working with her. She had two young kids. She was working in a quite high-powered, busy job and she just could not lose those last 20 pounds. She could not wake up– she really wanted to be a morning exerciser– and she just couldn't do it. And I would set goals for her all the time like, “Okay, tomorrow you're gonna wake up at 6:30” and she just could not do it. She was just barely getting by. She was doing fine at her job. She was doing fine with her kids, but she just didn't feel amazing. 

And I'm using her as an example because she was one of those that was so reluctant to eat more when I asked her to do that. She had gone through decades at that time of reducing her calorie intake. She had tried– I'm not gonna name the names of diets because I would tend to bash them and I don't want to do that– but she had tried all the diets you could think of, the really restrictive ones and the ones that promise a lot of things, and those had all messed up her metabolism. So we started literally by just increasing her vegetables. I said, “Can you have a serving of vegetables at lunch and dinner?”, and then at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we started by increasing her protein and we started adding more and more and more healthy food. And the secret is that, when we add in all those healthy foods, we eventually start crowding out the less healthy foods because we're so busy eating our vegetables and protein and we don't crave all of that stuff anymore. So she made these changes. It probably took three months or so, this is not some magic fix, it does take time. But at the end she said to me something that I just have been feeling for myself so strongly. She was like, “I feel so sad for the way that I've treated my kids, for the way that I haven't showed up to my job, for the way that I haven't shown up to myself”. And I told her which I truly believe, “Don't feel sad about it, feel great. You now have decades in the future with how amazing you can feel”. I probably finished up with her a year ago, but I keep in touch with my clients. She's still continuing to improve even more. Those 20 pounds are like, no problem. That was the least of her concerns at the end because she's just one example of so many. I promise to the people listening, if you don't know that you feel amazing. You probably don't feel amazing yet.

Leslie Danford: That is so inspiring and it reminds you of that saying that life gets as good as you'll let it get, don't settle if you're kind of struggling and everything feels like a struggle. Take the time, invest in yourself, and you never know. That's so wonderful. That makes you so happy for your clients.

Leslie Danford: That's great. So we talked about so many great things and I want to wrap up with, Where can people find you? How can people connect with you?

Megan Lyons: Yes, absolutely. I first will direct people to my website I have tons of free blog posts, lots of free goodies and giveaways, that hopefully will link to here. I have a really cool 50-day challenge that just helps people get started with a new challenge every day. I have information on balancing blood sugar, all of that kind of stuff. And then social-media-wise, I'm most active on Instagram. So I'm @thelyonsshare over there, and I'm really excited to talk to anyone who's listening to the summit. Let me know what you learned from this. I would love to hear and let me know who your other favorite speaker was on the summit too.

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