How come we seem to eat so much, so often, yet still feel tired? What is going wrong with the process of getting that energy from our food and creating energy in cells to perform our daily functions? Why is the energy being stored away as fat, so obesity is increasing in our society? This is the modern energy crisis. We just don’t seem to be making full use of food energy when we need it. Let’s have a look at why.
All of the body’s cells need energy to work and it is usually created from the fats, proteins, sugars and starches we eat. Nowadays, we tend to eat a lot of refined foods and these contain high amounts of sugar and starch that raise the sugar levels in our blood very quickly. What goes up must come down, so the body will often process excess sugar quickly so that the energy high is followed by an energy slump. Symptoms of low blood sugar levels can include hunger, sweating, dizziness, fatigue, irritability and confusion. It is at this point that you normally reach for the nearest chocolate bar, but this can cause the cycle to start over resulting in the blood sugar ‘rollercoaster’.
When the body detects glucose in the blood the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin that facilitates the movement of glucose into the cells, providing an energy source. However, when the body is overloaded with glucose, the excess is converted to glycogen, which is stored in muscles and the liver. Once glycogen stores are saturated, the liver converts the remaining glucose into fat, leading to increased weight gain and ultimately obesity. But it goes even deeper than that..
One major consequence of high sugar levels is a process called glycation, whereby glucose attaches to proteins in the blood and form Advanced Glycation End (AGE) products. AGEs can affect the integrity of cell membranes and increase inflammation. As the name suggests, they literally age our body cells too. Also, sometimes the body produces more insulin than necessary which indicates the pancreas is working overtime because they body’s cells are resistant to the effects of insulin. This means the cells have difficulty absorbing glucose and producing energy. Eventually both of these processes, resulting from persistently high blood glucose may lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and multiple other complications, such as inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
There’s a big link between blood glucose balance and our stress response too. Cortisol is our ‘get up and go’ hormone that releases into your system from the adrenal glands in the morning to wake you up feeling energised. Levels of cortisol gradually taper off throughout the day so that you can sleep in the evening. However, cortisol is also released in response to stress or low blood sugar to give you a burst of energy. Cortisol does this by tapping into our protein and fat stores to release glucose from glycogen. This energy can help an individual deal with a stressful situation. However, ongoing stress resulting in long term elevated cortisol can lead to chronically increased blood sugar levels. If our blood sugar is out of balance, that will cause cortisol to be released too, just to keep us going.
Luckily, we can do a lot with diet and nutrition, which are vital for helping to reduce fatigue and increase energy levels.
- Change your diet – You can help balance these highs and lows by choosing foods that release the glucose slowly and sustain your energy for longer. Eat a high proportion of vegetables, reduce the potatoes/rice and pasta and ensure you eat plenty of good quality protein with each meal (meat, fish, nuts, tofu). Protein will help to normalise insulin secretion and reduce the tendency to snack.
- Manage stress – stress levels can also help to balance out blood sugar levels. Activities such as meditation, walking and taking a bath can aid relaxation and lower cortisol levels and in turn, reduce insulin resistance.
- Move – Ironically exercise, rather than leaving you flat on the floor, boosts your energy levels by improving your blood sugar balance and improving mood. It’s important that you don’t overstretch yourself so that exercise just becomes another stress. Make sure you choose an activity that is brisk enough to get your heart rate going, but doesn’t wear you out and, more than anything else is something you enjoy.
- Reduce stimulants/sedatives – Although caffeine in the short term may seem like it good idea to boost energy levels, it can impair insulin sensitivity in high doses. Alcohol, such as beer and sweet wine, contains carbohydrates so will increase blood sugar levels. Alcohol can also stimulate the appetite, resulting in overeating and consequently weight gain.
Key Nutrients to help support blood sugar
- Chromium supports glucose control by its action on insulin receptors and reduces insulin resistance. It can prevent hypoglycaemia, reduce fatigue and attenuate body weight gain. Chromium is needed for metabolism of fats including cholesterol, so may have an additional benefit on high cholesterol levels. The best food sources of chromium are broccoli, grapes, potatoes and garlic.
- Cinnamon contains polyphenols which mimic insulin, therefore improving glucose metabolism and reducing blood sugar levels. Cinnamon also slows the emptying of the stomach to reduce sharp rises in blood glucose following meals and improves the sensitivity of insulin.
- Manganese is required for enzymes that are critical in gluconeogenesis and it also sensitizes cells to insulin. Food sources include pineapple, pecans, almonds, peanuts.
- Magnesium plays a central role in cellular energy production and can prevent blood sugar levels from falling excessively. It does this by regulating insulin secretion from the pancreas. Magnesium-rich foods include spinach, chard and pumpkin seeds.
- Stress can deplete B vitamins as these nutrients are required for energy production and therefore need replenishing frequently. To support this, eat a wide range of colourful fruit and vegetables, include wholegrains in your diet, and ensure you eat enough protein and nutrient rich foods. Vitamin B3 works alongside chromium in insulin regulation and preserves pancreatic cell function.
Modern life does seem to predispose us to our own energy crisis, and we need to take care of ourselves. Ensuring you have regular meals, trying to increase the key nutrients mentioned above, undertaking physical activity and managing your stress levels can help you achieve balanced blood glucose levels throughout the day. This can only be good, not only for your energy and wellbeing, but your future health outlook too.