One of the complaints I hear most often from clients is that they wish they had more energy. I get it. If I don’t get enough sleep, am under stress, say yes to too many obligations, or am not eating well, I turn into a cranky, french-fry craving zombie. It's not my best look. Trying to do it all and fit our busy lives into 24 short hours can be overwhelming if we don’t have the energy that is demanded of us. So we rely on coffee and energy drinks, afternoon sweets, or even medications to help us wake up, and then again to sleep, so that we can still do EVERYTHING. This is really no way to live. Ignoring the problem and relying on quick fix-its to power through can lead to more serious health conditions. There is a better way, I promise.
While there are a variety of reasons and health issues underlying why we may experience low energy, there are some simple things we can all do to address the foundations of energy. Clearly, getting adequate sleep is essential, as is exercise, stress management and simply just learning to say no. These are all very important issues, and could each easily make up their own blog topic. For the sake of brevity, this post will focus on the nutritional requirements and advice for giving your body what it needs (and eliminating what it doesn’t) to run optimally and provide us with the energy we want to live life to the fullest!
When we talk about energy and nutrition, its helpful to have a little background info. We obtain energy from the food we eat, mainly carbohydrates, which we use as glucose for ATP, but our bodies can also use protein and fat for energy. Our hormones are responsible for regulating our blood sugar, through an intricate system that moves glucose from the food we eat out of the blood system and into the tissues. This is done mainly by insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas. When we eat, our blood sugar increases and insulin is released to move the glucose into the liver, muscles and fat tissues for storage. High spikes of insulin will lead to dramatic drops in glucose (hypoglycemia), which leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Think of how you feel after eating something sugary, like birthday cake. Initially you may feel pretty great, but an hour or so later your energy drops, you feel cranky, or may even get a headache. Your liver, initiated by specific hormones, can then generate and release glucose which will raise the blood sugar level. This system is constantly working to keep blood sugar fairly even. Our diet and lifestyle can either help it along, or make it work harder. For instance, the standard American diet, full of refined flours, sugar and low in vegetables and fiber, can contribute to insulin resistance, wherein the cells stop responding to insulin, blood sugar remains high (hyperglycemia), and the body then releases even more insulin in response. Stress also raises our blood sugar with cortisol, another reason managing stress is so essential for weight and health.
If you feel like you're constantly tired or swing between extreme highs and lows, keeping your blood sugar balanced is essential. It will help to keep your energy balanced throughout the day, avoiding that all too common 3 o’clock slump, or feeling tired but wired at night when you are finally ready to rest.
Here are my tips on how to eat to gain more energy. It's not a comprehensive list, but its a fantastic start to addressing basic nutritional issues that could be zapping away your energy. For more guidance, personalized analysis, and targeted nutrients and supplements, I highly recommend working one on one with a nutrition consultant for the support you need.
Eating for Energy
1. Remove any foods that are harming you.
This starts with eliminating the obvious culprits: processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar & white flour. These foods literally drain your body of energy, using up nutrients to be digested, but providing you none in return. Sure you’ll get an immediate boost from the sugar, but the long term effects lead to a crash in energy, imbalances in your body’s blood sugar regulation systems, and a dependency on sugar to feel awake. No good.
It is also essential to remove any foods that you are sensitive or allergic too. Anything you are allergic or intolerant to triggers your immune system, causes inflammation, and drains your energy. It can also cause a number of seemingly unrelated symptoms such as eczema, headaches, or digestive disorders. Sometimes it can be a food we think of as healthy, but it triggers a reaction in your body. Discovering these foods can be a little tricky, even if you’ve had a IGE allergy test, there can still be more subtle intolerances that the test doesn’t catch. The first two to foods to eliminate are gluten and dairy. Try taking them out of your diet for 3-4 weeks and see how you feel. This is something I work carefully with clients to do, as its a process that takes some detective work. Discovering foods that may be inflammatory to your body with a supervised elimination diet, along with healing any digestive system damage, is key.
2. Eliminate caffeine and alcohol.
I know, I know. Don’t hate me - it's just temporary! If you are dependent on caffeine to wake you up, it may be time to hit the reset button. Is coffee inherently evil? Of course not. I love coffee and drank a cup a day for about 20 years. There are even studies that demonstrate that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee live longer than those that don’t. But if you’re depending on it to wake you up every day, you’ll never be able to regulate your energy naturally. Caffeine increases cortisol, which increases your blood sugar. As for alcohol, it can disrupt your sleep cycle and appetite. How often do you wake up after a night of drinking, tired and craving greasy food? Additionally, alcohol is sugar, carrying with it all the problems discussed above.
You don’t have to go cold turkey, and it doesn’t have to be forever. I recommend cutting the amount of caffeine and alcohol in half for a week or two. You can drink decaf coffee, or substitute coffee with green tea, which has less caffeine, and lots of antioxidants and health benefits. Then, try going caffeine and alcohol free for two weeks. Initially you may feel tired, but if you stick with it, it will help your body reset its natural cycles. If you continue to drink either one, have them with food and never on an empty stomach.
3. Increase your nutrient density.
Focus on a variety of vegetables & fruit, nuts & seeds, herbs & spices to get the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs. Plant foods provide fiber, which is incredibly important for detoxification, as well as slowing down carbohydrate metabolism and keeping you off of the blood sugar roller coaster. Support the liver with cruciferous veggies, such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts, as well as bitter greens like dandelion and watercress. Leafy greens, nuts and seeds are high in magnesium, associated with improved metabolism and glucose tolerance. Berries are low in sugar and high in antioxidants to protect your cells. Starchy veggies like potatoes, corn and peas have their place, but for the purpose of regulating blood sugar, best to eat those in moderation. Cinnamon helps to improve your insulin sensitivity, add it to smoothies and sauces often.
4. Eat 3 meals a day.
This helps to regulate your blood sugar levels, normalizing insulin and cortisol and avoiding any extreme spikes and crashes that go along with skipping meals. Hanger (Hunger + anger) is real. It’s also important to eat enough, but not too much. Over stuffing yourself with larger meals means higher blood sugar, more insulin, and can exhaust your regulation system. Don't worry too much about counting calories, just try not to let yourself become too starving, or too full.
If you tend to have a fast metabolism, exercise excessively, or have low blood sugar, then include two snacks a day as well.
5. Include protein and fat with every meal and snack.
Protein promotes satiation, leaving you feeling full and satisfied, helping to avoid sugar cravings. Fat will help to slow carbohydrate metabolism. For instance, a slice of bread with almond butter will increase blood sugar less and take longer to process than a slice of bread alone. Fat should come first from whole food sources, such as avocados, nuts and seeds. A limited amount from oils like olive oil and coconut oil, but all refined vegetable oils should be avoided. Pasture-raised, organic eggs and sustainably caught cold-water fish are options if you eat animal products.
The exact of amount of calories and macronutrient ratios depends on factors such as weight, age, and activity level, and can be best determined with the support of a qualified health practitioner.
6. Stay hydrated.
Try to drink half your body weight in oz. of water daily. Not all at once, the key here is have about a cup of water every hour or so. If it makes you feel full, drink it away from meals. Add an extra cup for every serving of caffeine or alcohol. Add lemon for extra liver support and hydration. Our bodies need water. Even mild dehydration can affect our mood, performance and energy levels. Often we confuse hunger with thirst, leading to overconsumption of food. This is really the easiest (and cheapest) thing you can do yourself every day.