Catabolism is the set of metabolic pathways which break down molecules into smaller units and 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, the large molecules are called polymers.
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 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 which make up anabolism. 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 which 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.