Differences Between Anabolism and Catabolism

We're going to tell you what catabolism and anabolism consist of, two contrary physiological processes that can determine health and disease states.
Differences Between Anabolism and Catabolism
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 08 February, 2023

Anabolism and catabolism are two especially important physiological processes in the human body. They take place daily in many different tissues and are necessary to prevent different pathologies. However, in some cases, they can be an indicator that something isn’t working as it should.

Before we begin to explain the difference between anabolism and catabolism, it’s important to understand that millions of chemical reactions take place in the body every day. They are extraordinarily precise, and when inefficiencies are experienced when they’re occurring, then diseases can develop.

What is anabolism?

With the term anabolism we’re talking about tissue growth. It usually refers to the increase in muscle mass, especially when we’re in sports contexts. However, anabolism is much more than that. Any reaction from which the genesis of cells or matter occurs is considered anabolic.

These processes are decisive during the human growth stage. However, in adulthood, they will also be experienced frequently. After all, most tissues are constantly restructured – destroyed daily with new structures are created. Despite this, these mechanisms are totally imperceptible to the human eye.

When we talk about anabolism, we have to keep something in mind. This mechanism requires a contribution of energy. Otherwise, you would be violating one of the laws of thermodynamics, something impossible in physics. Therefore, it will be necessary to guarantee an energy surplus for any structure to grow or regenerate. Likewise, it’s important for us to have optimal nutritional intake.

The nutrients responsible for anabolic functions are, par excellence, proteins. This is because they have a structural mission within the human body. According to a study published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism magazine, it’s essential to achieve a daily intake of at least 0.8 grams of these elements per kilo of weight per day.

Main routes of anabolism

The differences between anabolism and catabolism include when these pathways occur
The main routes of anabolism are insulin dependent. This means that they are activated when food is consumed, which increases the blood levels of this hormone.

Although proteins have a special power when it comes to activating anabolic physiology, it should be noted that they aren’t the only nutrients linked to these processes. One of the main routes from which new structures are generated is called the mTor pathway. This is especially dependent on carbohydrates, as stated by research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

The intake of sugar triggers the production of insulin, one of the hormones responsible for activating this pathway, which sets in motion the processes of anabolism. This is the reason why, in order to promote lean mass gains, it’s recommended to plan a diet with a certain carbohydrate content. Ketogens can help preserve tissue, but they aren’t the best for promoting anabolism.

However, it’s essential to highlight both sides of the coin concerning anabolism. In the sporting context, it is especially important. However, in other situations, it can be considered harmful. For example, the excessive activation of the mTor pathway in the context of sedentary people could increase the risk of developing cancer, according to a study published in the Journal of Hematology & Oncology.

Now, we’re talking here about a process motivated by an unhealthy diet and the lack of exercise. That is why it is recommended to limit the intake of simple sugars in the diet when leading a sedentary lifestyle. In this context, it’s more beneficial to prioritize the intake of fats, proteins and micronutrients to maintain good health.

What is catabolism?

Anabolism and catabolism are opposed concepts. We’re talking in this case of a set of reactions that aim at the destruction of structures or nutrients for the production of energy. By breaking the bonds that make up the molecular conformations, a certain amount of energy is released that can be used by the body.

Many different catabolic processes take place within the body on a daily basis. One of the most studied of them all is the Krebs cycle, by which glucose molecules are used for energy production. It’s also true that these energetic substrates can be obtained previously through the transformation of fatty acids and amino acids.

Returning to the context of the exercise, it should be noted that the efficiency of catabolic processes can be increased in order to achieve higher performance in the medium and long term. For example, physical work on an empty stomach allows the body’s ability to mobilize and oxidize lipids, which will translate into subsequent glycogen savings and a delay in the onset of fatigue.

In the same way, ketogenic diets can be considered for this purpose. However, it’s advisable to first visit a specialist before taking these types of measures, since it isn’t always a positive step. For example, limiting carbohydrate intake in resistance exercise situations may not only decrease performance, but could also cause an increased risk of injury.

Main routes of catabolism

As we have seen, one of the most characteristic mechanisms of catabolic physiology is the Krebs cycle. However, for this to start, it may be necessary to activate the AMPK pathway. This has the exact opposite effect of the aforementioned mTor, activating the suppression of insulin and glucagon synthesis.

In this way, it can be affirmed that this route is promoted in the absence of carbohydrate consumption. It has even been associated with a positive antitumor effect, since it stimulates autophagy and, with it, the suppression of cancer cells. This is evidenced by research published in the journal Current Opinion in Cell Biology.

This is one of the mechanisms by which ketogenic diets seem to be effective in enhancing the effects of antineoplastic therapies, sometimes helping to delay tumor progression. However, much remains to be discovered in this regard, since cancer metabolism encompasses a series of complex mechanisms that raise certain doubts among the scientific community.

Anabolic supplements to slow catabolism

The differences between anabolism and catabolism include the supplements used to stimulate both pathways.
In the sports world, there are many examples of supplements intended to stimulate anabolism. This is important to promote an increase in muscle mass.

There are a number of compounds that can be administered to promote the body’s anabolic processes. They are normally used in sports contexts and their objective is to promote lean mass gains. Perhaps the most common of them are whey protein supplements, of high biological value and easily assimilated.

However, other substances are capable of promoting these tissue-generating routes, in addition to positively influencing strength values. We talk mostly about creatine. It is one of the most common ergogenic aids in elite sport, with effects that have been evidenced by science.

It hardly has any harmful effects beyond a certain intestinal discomfort in very specific cases, and the benefits that are extracted from its consumption can exceed what is strictly sporting. For example, it is proposed to stimulate mental alertness in the elderly.

Catabolic supplements to avoid anabolism

In the same way that there are substances that can activate the routes of anabolism, it is possible to find others that exert just the opposite effect, promoting catabolism. Most of them act on the thermogenesis mechanism. That is, they manage to slightly increase body temperature to promote greater energy expenditure, with losses through heat.

It’s also possible to find catabolic supplements that act through a modification of the energy substrates used. In this case, we can mention caffeine, as it is one of the most efficient and popular. This compound has been shown to be able to help you lose weight, in addition to preventing it from being put on again for a good while.

This substance can be consumed during periods of fasting to stimulate the autophagy mechanisms, which is considered positive for health. Of course, for this to start, it will be necessary for blood sugar levels to be low first thing in the day, something that doesn’t happen in diabetic patients or those with insulin resistance.

Anabolism and catabolism, two opposite processes

Anabolism and catabolism are two opposite processes. They have important implications within the context of sport, but also when we talk about health. Although both are necessary to achieve internal homeostasis, an excessive promotion of anabolism in the absence of physical exercise isn’t considered positive. This could lead to the development of pathologies.

Keep in mind that to achieve good health it’s necessary to combine a series of good lifestyle habits. Optimizing your diet will be key, but you’ll also need to make sure you exercise regularly, sleep well each night, and get frequent sunlight. In this way, deficits that condition the appearance of diseases will be avoided.

Finally, you must not forget that metabolism is a tremendously complex field, beyond anabolism and catabolism. There are still questions about many different routes, and certain diseases such as cancer don’t have an explanation or proven answer. However, it’s likely that in the coming years, with the advancement of science, all the processes we don’t understand today will begin to be clarified.

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