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Catabolism (Greek kata = downward + ballein = to throw) is the set of metabolic pathways that breaks down molecules into smaller units to release energy. In catabolism, large molecules such as polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids and proteins are broken down into smaller units such as monosaccharides, fatty acids, nucleotides, and amino acids, respectively. As molecules such as polysaccharides, proteins, and nucleic acids are made from long chains of these small monomer units (mono = one + mer = part), the large molecules are called polymers (poly = many).
Cells use the monomers released from breaking down polymers to either construct new polymer molecules, or degrade the monomers further to simple waste products, releasing energy. Cellular wastes include lactic acid, acetic acid, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and urea. The creation of these wastes is usually an oxidation process involving a release of chemical free energy, some of which is lost as heat, but the rest of which is used to drive the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This molecule acts as a way for the cell to transfer the energy released by catabolism to the energy-requiring reactions that make up anabolism. (Catabolism is seen as destructive metabolism and anabolism as constructive metabolism). Catabolism therefore provides the chemical energy necessary for the maintenance and growth of cells. Examples of catabolic processes include glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, the breakdown of muscle protein in order to use amino acids as substrates for gluconeogenesis and breakdown of fat in adipose tissue to fatty acids.
There are many signals that control catabolism. Most of the known signals are hormones and the molecules involved in metabolism itself. Endocrinologists have traditionally classified many of the hormones as anabolic or catabolic, depending on which part of metabolism they stimulate. The so-called classic catabolic hormones known since the early 20th century are cortisol, glucagon, and adrenaline (and other catecholamines). In recent decades, many more hormones with at least some catabolic effects have been discovered, including cytokines, orexin (also known as hypocretin), and melatonin.
Many of these catabolic hormones express an anti-catabolic effect in muscle tissue. One study found that the administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) had an anti-proteolytic effect, and in fact suppressed catabolism rather than promoted it. Another study found that catecholamines in general (the main ones being, epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine), greatly decreased the rate of muscle catabolism.