We effectively ‘burn’ carbohydrate, releasing the sun’s energy within food, with oxygen, which comes from the breath. With more oxygen, people feel more energised and the simplest way to increase your intake of oxygen is through certain breathing techniques.
At a subtler level the breath has a central role to play in both the traditions of the East, that focus on generating vital energy known as chi or ki, and the Indian tradition of yoga for generating prana. There are specific vital energy generating exercises that do this.
However, before the carbohydrate you eat gets to meet oxygen for the final energy-making reaction, the ‘fuel’ has to be prepared and broken down, step by step. This is done by a sequence of enzymes that depend on a whole family of nutrients, especially B vitamins and vitamin C, as well as the minerals iron, zinc and magnesium. Chromium also plays a vital role in stabilising glucose (digested carbohydrate) supply to cells.
At the same time the energy within glucose is released within the energy factories (called mitochondria) inside every cell, so too are millions of harmful oxidant by-products. The ability to continually disarm these with antioxidants, and particularly an antioxidant called Co-enzyme Q10, makes a big difference to how you feel. These are the energy nutrients.
If all these keep your engine running, so to speak, adrenal hormones are the accelerator, working closely with thyroid hormones, to control your energy level. These are the energy hormones, and they too are made from specific nutrients, primarily amino acids derived from protein.
Understanding how to keep these in balance is an important part of the energy equation. All this is one side of the equation. The other is how you expend energy and how to conserve it. Together, these make up the five critical factors for increasing your energy. So let’s take a close look at what this means for you.
1. The Right Kind of Carbohydrate
All carbohydrate is broken down into glucose and the earliest thinking in nutrition is that you’d get the most energy by eating glucose-rich foods, hence ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’. In our Optimum Nutrition UK survey of 37,000 people, we found the reverse to be true – those people who ate the most sugar and refined carbohydrates had the lowest energy levels. Meanwhile, those following a low-GL diet designed to maintain a constant, steady supply of glucose into the bloodstream, report big increases in energy. The three golden rules, are to eat 40 to 60 GLs a day, combine protein with carbohydrate, and graze rather than gorge, eating little and often. My book The Low GL Diet Bible explains exactly how to do this. Also try Get Up & Go a high-energy breakfast shake which is perfectly balanced for a low-GL start to your day,
2. The Energy Nutrients
The first important energy nutrient is chromium. It makes insulin work properly and is associated with increasing energy, improving mood and reducing sugar cravings. Some studies also report weight loss in overweight people. While an adequate daily intake is 50mcg, only levels of 500mcg or more work for stabilising blood sugar in diabetics. If you are not diabetic, but do have sugar cravings, I’d recommend 200mcg of chromium a day, although there’s no harm in trying double this and seeing if it makes a bigger difference.
All the B vitamins are critical for energy production within cells and a lack is one of the most common causes of fatigue. One way of knowing if you are lacking either B6, B12 or folic acid is to test your homocysteine level. If it is high you’re not getting enough for you. A common reported symptom of high homocysteine is low energy.
In practical terms, the easiest way to ensure a good intake of B vitamins is to take a high-strength multivitamin twice a day, providing in total something like 25mg each of B1, B2, B3 and B6. Some people have problems ‘activating’ B6 so it’s best to take a pre-activated form called pyridoxal-5-phosphate, in which case you need a little less. You need a bit more B5 (pantothenic acid) – aim for 50mg, although some people report an energy boost with 500mg.
You also need around 200mcg of folic acid, plus some B12. While a daily intake of 10mcg is generally enough B12 for most of us, the older you get the less well you absorb it. Recent research shows that two in five people aged over 61 are deficient, and that only levels of 500mcg correct deficiency. Methylated B12 (methylcobalamin) is particularly well absorbed. You might want to try 500mcg a day, especially if you are older, to see if this ups your energy. Ideally, test your homocysteine level to see if you’re deficient. Supplements containing methylation nutrients for normalising homocysteine generally provide 500mcg of B12.
The most important antioxidant, which controls the last stage of energy production that produces ATP – which is the cell’s actual energy source – is Co-EnzymeQ10 (or Co-Q for short). It’s highly concentrated in mitochondria, the energy factories of cells. It’s not strictly a vitamin in that we can synthesize some in our own bodies, but the older you get the less good you become in making it from food. Supplementing 60 to 90mg a day can give an energy boost, particularly among older people. Co-Q has been put on the map by statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs that also block the liver’s ability to synthesize Co-Q, resulting in fatigue and muscle and heart pain as side-effects. Being the biggest muscle in the body, the heart is particularly dependent on Co-Q, as well as the amino acid carnitine. Carnitine helps prepare fats for burning as energy and is also found in the mitochrondria. The combination of Co-Q plus carnitine is particularly effective as an energy booster, especially in anyone who has suffered from cardiovascular problems. You need 500mg of carnitine for an effect.
3. The Energy Hormones
The hormones that keep you awake and alert are adrenalin and cortisol, both produced by the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys. Much like the sugar story, the fact that caffeine raises adrenalin led to the idea that the more caffeine you take in, the more energy you’ll have. In our ONUK survey we found the reverse to be true – the people with the lowest energy levels had the highest caffeine intake. Of course, we don’t know if they were consuming caffeine because they were tired or became tried as a result of high caffeine use – we suspect it’s a bit of both.
It’s certainly my experience with clients that caffeine ultimately robs you of energy, although the short-term effect is energy boosting. The other critical hormone is thyroxine, produced by the thyroid gland, which ups energy production within cells.
Low thyroid function is a very common cause of fatigue, often boosted by a low dose of thyroxine. However, I’d prefer to first recommend you try supplementing the amino acid tyrosine, which is both the precursor for thyroxine and adrenalin, together with adaptogenic herbs. You need 750 to 1,500mg of tyrosine for an effect, taken on an empty stomach or with a carbohydrate snack. Adaptogenic herbs helps to optimise cortisol levels. These include American and Asian ginseng, Siberian ginseng which is actually a different herb, Reishi mushroom and Rhodiola. Pantothenic acid is also needed for the production of adrenalin.
4. Generating Vital Energy
Most of us only use a third of our lung capacity. The basis of all yoga and all traditional martial arts starts with the conscious use of the breath. This means more than breathing deeply and involves a method of breathing that connects you with the centre of vital energy in the belly, known as the tantien in China and hara in Japan. In the excellent exercise system Psychocalisthenics® this is called the kathtm point and is taught as Diakathsm breathing. Created by Oscar Ichazo, master of yoga and the martial arts, Psychocalisthenics® is a series of 23 breathing-with-movement exercises that promote vital energy through the whole body.
Your Action Plan for High-Energy Living
• Follow a low-GL diet.
• Supplement a high strength multivitamin/mineral twice a day, plus extra vitamin C.
• Try extra chromium 200mcg, Co-Q 60mg plus Carnitine 500mg, or tyrosine 750mg plus adaptogenic herbs.
• Test your homocysteine level. If high, supplement a combination of methylation nutrients including 500mcg of B12.
• Do vital energy generating exercises such as Psychocalisthenics every day.
• Avoid or minimise sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
• If all else fails, check your thyroid function.
Feeling tired all the time is not normal, or natural, but there are phases in life when it seems to be much more common. Menopause brings many challenges so tackling any hormone imbalance whether after a hysterectomy or from oestrogen dominance is a great place to start. Dealing with any stress and getting the nutritional equation right will help you feel better and on track for better health too.