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Upping the Energy

By Greg Samples


Originally published in Everything Knoxville in November, 2013

Recent years have seen a huge increase in foods and drinks designed to increase energy. Among the most popular today are the high energy drinks that promise to give you a shot of energy and make you perform tasks better. Although there may be multiple ingredients, the two most common for this desired effect are simple sugars and caffeine. These two ingredients can have harmful effects when used on a regular basis. There is a better way to produce energy and focus.

Energy in the body is produced in the same manner as fire. It requires fuel and oxygen. If you are lacking energy, it is likely because one of these elements is deficient, at least for the moment. Of course eating simple sugar can give you a quick pick up as it raises the glucose level in the blood abruptly, satisfying the need for fuel. However, the body will make sure this level does not get too high by secreting insulin to remove sugar from the blood, and a drop in energy often follows within a short period of time.

One way caffeine provides energy is by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters in the body. This results in vasoconstriction, the narrowing of blood vessels. Besides affecting the nervous system, this also allows the heart to pump oxygen more quickly to the muscles, thus increasing our energy. However, this mechanism is not meant to be used on an ongoing basis. It is part of the “fight or flight” mechanism for emergency situations, as when fear causes our adrenal glands to dump these neurotransmitters into the body. Occurrences of this have been known to give people super human strength in times of crisis, but when used on a daily basis, it can lead to high blood pressure and stroke. Studies by Cameron, Field, and Lunt have indicated between a twenty-two to thirty per cent decrease in cerebral blood flow correlated with regular caffeine use. Since the receptors in the brain develop a tolerance for caffeine, over time it takes more and more caffeine to have the same effect. Thus the longer you use caffeine, the more difficult it becomes to stop.

A better way to have a steady, level supply of blood sugar is to consume whole grains at every meal. Brown rice, barley, whole wheat, whole oats, millet and rye all provide complex carbohydrates that are slowly broken down as they enter the blood stream, therefore there is no peak and valley of blood sugar level, just a steady, enduring fuel supply. They also have the added advantage of providing fiber which is beneficial for colon health. It is important that whole grains be consumed at every meal, so that the energy level does not dip. If it does, those doughnuts will be irresistible. Evidence recently acknowledged by the FDA has shown that eating whole grains is a protector against Type 2 diabetes, so there is more than one advantage.

More oxygen is the second component of higher energy. Rather than accomplishing this with caffeine by constricting your blood vessels, try increasing the mineral content. Supplements are one way to increase minerals in the blood stream. One popular TV commercial of the past called the condition “iron poor blood”. These products can be effective because oxygen is carried in the blood by iron, but it is also depleted by the lack of other minerals such as calcium and magnesium. You may not be so deficient in minerals to be considered anemic, but it could still affect your energy levels. The most mineral dense foods are those in the category of sea vegetables. Nori, (used as a wrap in sushi), kelp, and kombu are just a few of the variety of these super foods that can provide us with the minerals that will carry abundant amounts of oxygen to our cells without constricting our blood vessels. Leafy greens are also an excellent source of minerals, and among fruits, raisins are an excellent choice.

So the next time you feel your energy sinking and reach for one of those high energy drinks, consider the long term effects. Instead, start the day with whole oats and raisins, include a generous serving of brown rice for lunch, and enjoy a barley stew for dinner. Then watch your energy soar.

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