Expert Q&A

Metabolism: Can drugs speed it up?

Can drugs speed up my metabolism?

They can, but would you really want to take the risk? It’s like driving: you can get there faster by driving 100 mph, but the risk is greater.

What is metabolism?

Metabolism is the energy needed to keep us alive (basal metabolic rate) and to perform other bodily functions beyond simply sustaining life. By far, the most important contributor to our metabolic rate is genetics. Some people just burn calories faster than others. That doesn’t mean they are blessed with the ability to eat all they want without gaining weight because “naturally thin” people stop eating when they are full. Age is the next most important contributor. We need 10% fewer calories every decade of life after the 20s. 

If we could speed up the basal metabolic rate of our organs, we would burn more calories. The liver accounts for more than a quarter of our energy expenditures, but there is no way to increase its activity. The brain is next but while thinking uses energy, it is not much more than the energy needed just to keep our bodies working.

Exercise is the only effective and safe way of increasing your metabolism

If we are going to influence metabolism, muscle activity is the only way we can do it and exercise is the most effective way. Drugs that increase muscle metabolism would help, but the adverse effects prohibit their use. For example, excess thyroid hormone raises metabolism but in addition to fat, muscle including heart muscle, and bone are lost if too much is taken. Adrenaline, a drug used to stimulate a stopped heart or to treat life threatening allergic reactions, increases muscular activity, but the side effects of rapid heart rate and shakiness plus the risk to the heart would be intolerable to most people. Caffeine produces a small increase in metabolism, but most people would not tolerate the insomnia, nervousness and heartburn that come from the constant high dose that would be needed. 

Many products are sold to increase metabolism but there is no proof they work. If they did, physicians would prescribe them. So, the bottom line is that the only really effective and safe way to increase metabolism is to exercise.

John Messmer, MD
Contributing Expert

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