Optimising your energy levels
Nutritional causes of low energy
Eating refined carbohydrates and sugars
These are found in white bread, rice and pasta, cakes, honey, jam, soda drinks, sweets. These foods are digested quickly and therefore rapidly release sugar (glucose), the main source of fuel for our cells, into the bloodstream. This provokes the release of excess insulin, a hormone which controls blood sugar levels by stimulating cells to take up glucose, as excess glucose is toxic to tissues. Excessive amounts of insulin remove excessive amounts of sugar from the blood, which results in low blood sugar; this can reduce the glucose supply to cells which depend on glucose for energy and therefore reduce our energy levels.
Allergenic foods can act as a stressor on the body and lead to low blood sugar so that cells lack enough sugar (glucose) for optimal functioning, making you feel tired.
In particular, deficiencies of B and C vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper which are needed for energy production can lead to low energy levels.
These include coffee, chocolate and nicotine increase levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (1) which sharply spike up blood sugar levels. This causes the release of large amounts of insulin to remove the excess sugar which is not used by the body and subsequently leads to an energy slump.
Every cell in your body needs water for a myriad of chemical reactions, including the burning of glucose and the breakdown of fat for energy production
Other causes of low energy
Stress leads to a sugar imbalance because it triggers the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which increase blood sugar levels. This stimulates the release large amounts of the hormone insulin, which removes the excess glucose from the blood, leading to low blood sugar and insufficient energy supply to our cells.
Connected to our stress levels is poor functioning of our adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and one of their main jobs is to release hormones which help the body maintain a state of alertness, as well as help raise blood sugar levels when they are low. If the adrenal glands are overworked due to constant uninterrupted stress and poor nutrition, their ability to produce hormones which help maintain steady blood sugar levels can become compromised and we experience low energy. Therefore, managing our stress levels is important for maintaining optimal energy levels.
This refers to a condition in which the blood is deficient in red blood cells or the haemoglobin (iron-containing) portion of red blood cells. The function of red blood cells is to transport oxygen from the lungs to the tissues of the body and help turn fats, carbohydrates and proteins into energy. Thus a lack of red blood cells reduces the amount of oxygen being delivered to tissues and thus energy levels.
Iron, vitamins B12 and folic acid are needed to make properly functioning red blood cells, and anaemia may be caused by a shortage of these nutrients. These nutrient deficiencies may be due to a poor diet, heavy menstrual bleeding, pregnancy or poor nutrient absorption as found in coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease.
Poor thyroid functioning
The thyroid controls energy production, so an underactive thyroid can result in reduced energy production, making us feel tired.
Optimising your energy levels through nutrition and lifestyle
Eat whole grains
These include whole wheat (brown) pasta, bread and brown rice as these are a good source of B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc and copper which are needed for energy production
Eat foods high in fibre
These include pulses (i.e. kidney beans, chickpeas etc), lentils, oats, fruits and vegetables which release glucose from food into the bloodstream slowly, ensuring a steady sugar supply to cells for their functioning. This avoids low blood sugar and dips in energy levels.
Consume adequate amounts of essential fatty acids
These are found in oily fish, seeds, nuts and their oils; these help maintain fluid cell membranes (2); fluid cell membranes are better able to absorb nutrients they need for energy production and eliminate waste products which slow energy production.
Have some plant or animal protein with each meal and snack
This could include beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, eggs, meat, fish etc. This is because protein takes longer to digest and therefore helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, thereby helping you sustain good energy levels for longer.
Regular physical activity helps increase the amount of lean muscle mass in the body which has a direct effect on the rate at which we produce energy-our metabolism. The more muscle we have, the higher our metabolic rate, and the more energy we can produce.
(1) Lovallo WR Farag NH Vincent AS Thomas Wilson T(2006) Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women Pharmacol Biochem Behav 8 3 3 441–447
(2) Jones DS & Quinn S (Eds) 2006 The Textbook of Functional Medicine Institute for Functional Medicine
Keep staff going for longer with the ‘Energising Diet’