Michal Mor hopes that one day, checking metabolism could be as routine as brushing your teeth. “The vision is that everyone manages lifestyle based on their unique metabolism,” she says. “It’s this metric that will help us live longer and healthier.”
In May, Mor and her twin sister Merav — both of them Ironman competitors with doctorates in psychology — launched Lumen. The device, they say, helps users track and “hack” their metabolism. It’s a simple concept: Breathe into the small black device, no bigger than an asthma inhaler, and receive a status report on what's called your metabolic flexibility. Then use that information to make lifestyle changes to boost performance and see an uptick in health.
The gadget has arrived among rising clamour from biohackers, intermittent fasting aficionados and rival tech developers (such as ketosis tracker Keyto) that insist the secret to a long, healthy life boils down to one major thing: our metabolism.
Are they right?Metabolic Flexibility
Loosely speaking, metabolism refers to the bodily processes that supply us with energy. These collective processes are designed to move primarily between two major states: absorptive (fed) and postabsorptive (fasting). In the former, usually after a meal, the body burns carbohydrates from food and stores excess as glycogen for later use. In the latter, it burns this stored fuel instead. (There is a third state, starvation, but it only occurs where the body is deprived of nutrients for an extended period of time and begins to break down muscle.) Metabolic flexibility is the term used to describe the efficiency and speed with which you move between the two states.
Despite throwing up 42 million search results on Google and acting as the main talking point at biohacking summits the world over, the concept of metabolic flexibility has only been circulating for about two decades. In 1999, endocrinologist David E. Kelley compared the effects of an overnight fast on lean versus obese patients. Leaner people, he found, adapted far more quickly, their bodies promptly switching to a postabsorptive state. Obese patients didn’t adapt nearly as fast — they were metabolically inflexible.
In the years since Kelley coined the term, “it’s become very sexy,” says Eric Ravussin, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. In fact, it’s been adopted as a sort of shorthand for optimal health. Red hot chilies, ice-cold showers and endless cups of green tea are just a few of the hacks recommended online by people who argue we can push our metabolism more efficiently between these two states to achieve goals in weight loss, exercise and overall health.
As Kelley’s initial discovery would suggest, there is evidence of a link between metabolic flexibility and both weight management and exercise. A 2019 paper published in Cell Metabolism found the body’s ability to switch between fuels in response to the composition of diet was linked to a susceptibility to weight gain. And a review published in the same journal two years earlier highlighted evidence that efficiently matching “fuel availability with metabolic machinery” could help boost athletic performance.
But Merav Mor, and other advocates, go far beyond metabolic flexibility as a tool for weight loss or shaving a few seconds off a 100-meter sprint. They claim that it can help create a stronger immune system, improve sleep and boost longevity.
The science doesn’t back up these broader health claims, though, says Ravussin. Not least because a robust human study would take 100 years, he points out. The only indicators we have of a link between metabolic flexibility and longevity right now are in mice. A 2015 review in Nature Cell Biology confirmed that studies have shown calorie restriction in mice can improve metabolic flexibility and increase lifespan.
“It's like any other kind of bright, shiny object,” says Susan Roberts, lead scientist of the Energy Metabolism Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. “Something new comes into science, and it sounds so attractive we think that maybe it's the solution to everybody's problem. But does metabolic flexibility account for 1 percent of health? 50 percent? 0.01 percent? That, for me, remains the question.”
The other question is, what can we do about it?Metabolism Hack
The creators of Lumen say we all have the capacity to hack metabolic flexibility for optimal health. Its devices provide users with a metabolic level based on the composition of a single breath, or what’s known as respiratory quotient (RQ). The idea is that when our metabolism is in a postabsorptive or fasted state, less carbon dioxide is released. Holding your breath for 10 seconds before exhaling into the device, Lumen say, captures this RQ and gives an accurate reading on your current metabolic state.
The premise is that a “healthy body is one that relies on fat stores in the morning,” says Mor. If the device detects this postabsorptive state first thing, then you’re on the right track. If not, Lumen recommends lifestyle changes around sleep, exercise or diet, that help you improve it for next time. Easy.
Or is it?
There are links between lifestyle factors and metabolic performance. Sleep deprivation can damage overall metabolic health, for instance, while regular exercise can help prevent diseases linked to metabolism, such as type 2 diabetes.
But our ability to hack metabolism is limited. “Your metabolism is mostly determined by your body composition and your genetic background,” says Ravussin. Back in the ’90s, Ravussin studied Pima Indians living in Arizona over an eight year period — a group with the second highest prevalence of obesity in the world. Genes, he discovered, were crucial.
Even [which] Mor accepts that factors such as age and historic activity levels play into the extent to which you can tinker with metabolism. “But there’s no question about seeing improvement,” she says.
For Roberts, of all the various ways we can boost health, painstakingly tracking metabolism isn’t where she would focus efforts now. “We need another couple of years of studies and then maybe it'll prove to be important,” she says. “But at this point, there are more important things. Do you eat junk food? Do you eat late at night? Do you stop eating at 6 p.m. and give your stomach time to recover? These are areas with really good evidence. This is all just a bit premature.”
Citizen Science Salon is a partnership between Discover and SciStarter.org.
You can call them "insects, spiders and their relatives," or you can call them "bugs" and incur the wrath of those who point out that the only true bugs are hemipteran insects like stinkbugs and cicadas. No matter what you call them, they're fascinating and critically important. And you can help scientists who study bugs by volunteering with these citizen science projects.
A spurge hawkmoth seen in Switzerland. (Credit: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons)Caterpillars Count!
Help tally these moth and butterfly babies as they gorge on greenery this fall, gaining the strength to spin their cocoons and chrysalides. Your data will help the scientists at Caterpillars Count! understand how the abundance of these bugs varies from rural countrysides to major urban areas, and from coast to coast.
(Credit: Matt Bertone/Never Home Alone)Never Home Alone
You may never feel lonely again after joining Never Home Alone, the citizen science project that lets you meet your six, eight, multi and no-legged housemates. Right now they're snuggling in your bed, scampering under your rug and nestling happily in your eyebrows.QuestaGame
With the citizen science project QuestaGame, you can submit sightings of insects, spiders and other flora and fauna while having fun playing a game. Join and create quests, earn gold, join clans/teams, compete against other players, identify sightings, gain levels, build your collection, move up the leaderboard, all while helping to document and protect your local biodiversity.
Clanger or clear wing cicada (Psaltoda claripennis). (Credit: Arthur Chapman/Flickr)Cicada Safari
Mathematically-inclined periodical cicadas spend either 13 or 17 years of their lives alone underground nibbling on roots, before emerging to meet and mate en masse — thereby overwhelming their predators. Help researchers learn more about them and their annually emerging cousins with Cicada Safari, a phone app that lets you collect and share data on cicada sightings.
Monarch butterflies can travel thousands of miles on their annual migration across North America. (Credit: Jim in Monona, IA/Courtesy of Journey North)Journey North
The migration patterns of monarch butterflies, the emergence patterns of other insects and the distribution of their food sources is a big part of the project Journey North, which explores wildlife migration and seasonal changes in North America. Sign up for this important, large-scale, multi-year study.
By building a bee condo or planting a pollinator garden, you can participate in a plethora of citizen science projects that ask volunteers to record the creatures they see in their own backyard. (Credit: California Pollinator Project)Plant a Pollinator Garden
While Spring is the season we usually consider prime time for flowers, many flowers actually wait until Fall, when insects and other pollinators are especially desperate for nectar and pollen. It's a great time of year to find species you didn't see in the earlier months, and a perfect time to try these pollinator-themed projects.
(Credit: Robert Webster, CC BY-SA 4.0)Bugs in Our Backyard
With Bugs in Our Backyard, you'll conduct insect surveys to help answer questions, like "How does insect diversity vary over time and in rural and urban areas?" All you need to do is give information about the bugs you see, the host plant you found them on and the location where you spotted them. Who knows what you might discover in your own backyard?
Note: Some of these projects are SciStarter affiliates. You can earn credit for your participation in your dashboard.
You can find more citizen science projects at SciStarter.org.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking about Trofim Lysenko.
Who? Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist who decided that modern genetics was all wrong, indeed contrary to Marxist-Leninist principles. He even denied that genes existed, while insisting that long-discredited views about evolution were actually right. Real scientists marveled at his ignorance.
But Josef Stalin liked him, so Lysenko’s views became official doctrine, and scientists who refused to endorse them were sent to labor camps or executed. Lysenkoism became the basis for much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policy, eventually contributing to the disastrous famines of the 1930s.
Does all of this sound a bit familiar given recent events in America?
Those worried about a crisis of democracy in the United States — which means everyone paying attention — usually compare Donald Trump to strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not Stalin. Indeed, if the GOP has become an extremist, anti-democratic party — and it has — it’s an extremism of the right.
But while nobody would accuse Trump of being a leftist, his political style always reminds me of Stalinism. Like Stalin, he sees vast, implausible conspiracies everywhere — anarchists somehow in control of major cities, radical leftists somehow controlling Joe Biden, secret anti-Trump cabals throughout the federal government. It’s also notable that those who work for Trump, like Stalinist officials, consistently end up being cast out and vilified — although not sent to gulags, at least not yet.
And Trumpism, like Stalinism, seems to inspire special disdain for expertise and a fondness for quacks.
On Wednesday Trump said two things that both, if you ask me, deserved banner headlines. Most alarmingly, he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.
But he also indicated that he might reject new guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration for approving a coronavirus vaccine, saying that the announcement of these guidelines “sounds like a political move.” What?
OK, we all understand what’s going on here. Many observers worry that the Trump team, in an effort to influence the election, will announce that we have a safe, effective vaccine against the coronavirus ready to go, even if we don’t (and we almost certainly won’t have one that soon). So the Food and Drug Administration was trying to reassure the public about the integrity of its approval process.
And we really need that reassurance, because the Trump administration has given us every reason to distrust statements coming from public health agencies.
Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to the effect that people exposed to the coronavirus but not having COVID-19 symptoms didn’t need to get tested — contrary to the recommendations of just about every independent epidemiologist. Subsequent reporting revealed that the new guidance was prepared by political appointees and skipped the scientific review process.
More recently, the CDC warned about airborne transmission of the coronavirus — this time matching what experts are saying — only to suddenly pull the guidance from its website a few days later. We don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s hard not to notice that the retracted guidance would have made it clear that recent Trump rallies, which involve large indoor crowds with few people wearing masks, create major public health risks.
So the FDA was trying to assure us that it won’t be corrupted by politics the way the CDC apparently has been. And Trump basically cut the agency off at the knees; his assertion that the new guidelines sound political actually meant that they weren’t political enough, that he wants to keep open the possibility of announcing a vaccine as a way to help retain power.
But if political hacks are calling the shots at the CDC, and the FDA is being told to shut up and follow the party line, who’s advising Trump on pandemic policy? Send in the quacks.
Trump’s disastrous push, back in April, for early reopening was reportedly influenced by the writings of Richard Epstein, a law professor who somehow decided that he was an expert in epidemiology and that COVID-19 would kill no more than 500 people, a number he eventually increased to 5,000 — roughly the death toll we’re currently experiencing every week.
But the quack of the moment is Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no expertise in infectious diseases who nonetheless impressed Trump with his appearances on Fox News. Atlas' opposition to mask requirements and advocacy of just letting the coronavirus spread until we’ve reached “herd immunity” are very much at odds with what actual epidemiologists are saying, but they’re what Trump wants to hear, and Atlas has apparently become a key adviser on pandemic policy.
That’s what had me thinking about Trofim Lysenko. Like Stalin, Trump denigrates and bullies experts and takes advice on what should be scientific issues from people who don’t know what they’re talking about but tell him what he wants to hear.
And you know what happens when a national leader does that? People die.
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