When asked if they would like more energy, I wonder how many people would say no, thank you, I have plenty? Given how life can be it's no surprise that lack of energy is a common complaint, with clients often wishing that they had the sort of energy they did when they were young. Although I also wonder if we idealise how much energy we had when we were younger, imagining that we rarely felt tired and had more stamina. How do we reconcile this given that a stereotypical teenager might sleep for hours yet always complain about being tired?
Whether or not we are seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles, there are some reasons why being a little older may result in feeling less energetic. There is no single reason however, which is frustrating in that if there was, addressing it might be easier. Remember that low energy levels may be the result issues that require appropriate medical attention, such as low thyroid output or depression, but there are smaller influences that may affect energy, and these involve diet and exercise.
A quick reminder - the process of creating energy involves countless biochemical processes and is almost impossible to describe in a sentence or two. That said, the basic outline is that the food we eat is digested leading to the creation of glucose, a simple sugar, which is released into the bloodstream upon which the pancreas releases insulin which stimulates cells to absorb the glucose. Once there, mitochondria make use of the glucose to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is further used as energy. ATP is required continuously, and so the process is relentless, although some ATP can be stored, albeit in limited amounts.
This process doesn’t require much input from us, although there are a couple of steps we might take to encourage consistent supply of energy. For example, combining the food groups when we eat may help as each is broken down with differing ease by the digestive system resulting in glucose. Simple carbohydrates, characterised by having less fibre than complex carbohydrates, are broken down quite rapidly, whilst complex take a little longer due the presence of fibre that needs a little more work. Protein digestion is even slower, whilst fat slower still. In other words, simple carbs create glucose at a faster pace than protein, which is down to its physical structure, so the journey from food to glucose will be faster for, say, a glass of apple juice then for a piece of chicken.
Once the glucose is in the blood stream, it needs to get into the cells. This requires insulin, a hormone, that has one job – to manage glucose levels in the blood. It does this in two ways – first, by stimulating receptors around the cell encouraging it to absorb glucose which is then used to make energy. If there is more glucose lurking in the blood than can be absorbed any excess is marshalled away, first to be stored at glycogen (a water-based solution) but can also be stored as fat, through a multitude of biochemical processes.
Insulin does its job of managing glucose and doesn’t take into account your schedule, how tired you are and whether you planned to go for a run later this afternoon. Low glucose levels can be experienced as hunger and fatigue and so if one can help glucose levels in the blood remain relatively even, then this should result in a drip-feed of glucose, rather than amounts that exceed capacity.
In practice this should help energy levels remain relatively consistent and can be achieved by combining fibre rich complex carbs with protein and eating small amounts at regular intervals. This may mean breakfast, a snack, lunch, another snack and then dinner, each time mixing the food groups. This won’t suit everyone but is worth a try if you get especially hungry and feel that energy levels drop mid-morning and afternoon.
Turning now to the next stage of energy production in which ATP is produced in the mitochondria who’s number may be increased through exercise, mostly aerobic, and so as unappealing as it may be to someone who has low energy, exercise does and will help.
Another part of enhancing energy levels relates to ATP, small amounts of which can be stored mostly in muscle cells. Again, no panacea, but weight bearing activity can increase the number of muscle cells which in turn allows for a little more ATP storage.
I do suggest working with a nutrition professional with appropriate training (this may not be your PT by the way) to get a more individualised plan. But if you have low energy levels you might consider changing your diet to eat little and often, each time combining a little protein with complex carbs, and getting regular exercise, both aerobic and weight bearing. Worth a try, I’d say.
Ian Marber’s interest in food and nutrition was piqued when diagnosed with coeliac disease in his late twenties. He soon after gave up a successful career in investment to study nutrition at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, graduating in 1999 and founding the now-globally recognised nutritional consultancy, The Food Doctor.
Departing the Food Doctor in 2012, Ian now advises individuals and industry alike. He has since worked with over 8,000 clients, leads seminars, workshops and lectures and works closely with brands such as Innocent Drinks to formulate new ranges. His expertise has lead him to be recognised as go-to contributor within the press, writing regularly in The Times, The Spectator and The Telegraph, as well as making regular appearances on both TV and radio.
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