Do you have less overall energy than you’d like? Do you have trouble getting up in the morning, or run out of steam part way through the day?
We have an energy crisis and many of the solutions are worse than the problem. I’ll help you to understand why you may be having these problems, and give some natural solutions you can do on your own.
Welcome to the non-stop 21st century, with impossible schedules as we juggle work, home, and family responsibilities. We’re often running on empty too – with insufficient sleep and inadequate nutrition. The Standard American Diet (well-named “SAD” for short) is full of nutrient-deficient refined foods that are simply not able to sustain us properly.
The Stimulant Rollercoaster
We have our quick fixes: sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and even drugs, legal and otherwise, may give us a temporary boost. They trigger the emotional center of the brain, called the limbic system, to release the pleasure molecule, dopamine. But there is no free lunch here.
These highs evaporate all too quickly, often leaving us to cope with their nasty aftermath — mood swings, emotional depletion, physical exhaustion, and even addiction. We feel even worse than before we started! It’s not simply that the positive effect wears off, but we now have to cope with a reaction called down-regulation. Nature’s way of maintaining balance is by quickly shutting down some receptors in the brain, thereby dampening the effects of the excessive dopamine release. As a result, we need more of the stimulant, more frequently, to get the same good feelings and high energy that we did initially.
We even get hooked on our own inner chemicals! Ever think of yourself as a “stress junkie,” finding it hard to chill on a weekend or while on vacation? Stress, just like stimulants, activates your adrenals glands, the two almond- shaped stress organs perched atop our kidneys. They release the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which promote the release of dopamine. While this is Mother Nature’s way of helping us deal with pain, it can also lead to an addiction to stress itself! The adrenals ultimately become exhausted and no longer able to respond — and neither are you. So, turning to stimulants to rev up your engine will only further deplete an already bankrupt system.
The Truth about Stimulants
- Caffeine — Caffeine is what gives coffee, tea, and other beverages their “kick.” But caffeine is addictive and packs some heavy withdrawal symptoms (fatigue, headache, irritability, to name a few). Also, because it over-stimulates your nervous system, caffeine can cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat, and increases your risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks.
- Refined sugar — Grabbing a sweet snack for a quick pick-me-up taxes your system. Your cells struggle to process an overload of sugar that hits your bloodstream much faster than more complex natural varieties such as that found in fruit. Once the rush is gone, you crash into a low-blood-sugar malaise — and crave more. Your arteries, nerves, kidneys, and eyes can suffer from this sugar roller-coaster, and you are at increased risk for developing diabetes, an increasing epidemic in our society.
- Chocolate — Don’t assume it’s only the sugar and caffeine in that truffle that’s picking you up. Cocoa, the main ingredient, contains some highly addictive stimulants. These can cause you to crave more sugar-and caffeine-filled chocolate, with all the attendant health risks.
- Nicotine — A powerful poison, nicotine is proven to be more addictive than heroin. As the primary stimulant in cigarettes, nicotine works in a similar way to caffeine. However, along with this energizing “jolt” come high risks for cancer and heart disease.
- Amphetamines — Prescribed for years as “diet pills”, these powerful drugs spawned a generation of “speed” addicts in the 50s and 60s. Aside from the serious withdrawal symptoms, amphetamines raise heart rate and increase your risk of heart attack.
Our Brain on Natural Highs
You can start to regain your energy and enthusiasm for life through eating the right nutrients starting with the basics: carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Carbohydrate is converted into glucose (blood sugar) which is burned in the cells as fuel to create energy. It is important to eat complex, fiber-laden carbohydrates that burn slowly instead of refined sugars which give you a quick sugar high followed by a crash.
“Good fats” such as those found in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), or in flax oil help make up the brain cells, which are 70% fat. ‘Bad fats’ such as hydrogenated oils and those found in fried foods will actually interfere with healthy brain cell formation.
Protein, found in eggs, fish, meat, or vegetarian sources such as tofu, is broken down into its component amino acids. With the help of vitamins and minerals, these are then turned into “neurotransmitters” or chemical messengers.
There are hundreds of different neurotransmitters in a healthy body. Most of them are specialized: Dopamine and adrenaline increase our energy and alertness, helping us respond to stress. The endorphins, our natural morphine, can make us euphoric. Serotonin is both calming and mood –elevating. Acetylcholine drives our memory. GABA balances and relaxes us.
Traveling across tiny gaps or synapses between neurons (nerve cells) in our brains and bodies, the neurotransmitters send an electrical message down the line to the next neuron, and so on until the signal reaches the intended destination —perhaps a muscle or nerve.
Nutritional deficiencies hamper the body’s ability to produce enough of the right neurotransmitters, making you feel lethargic and run down. Even with a fairly good diet, you often need a further energy boost. This may be due to your own genetic make-up, a nutrient-deficient diet, a toxic environment, or simply, the increased demands of daily life.
Fortunately there are a number of safe and well-researched supplements — vitamins, minerals, herbs and amino acids –that can do the trick. Unlike other energizers that give you only a quick fix, the right nutrients actually help your body to increase the production of neurotransmitters.
Essential Cofactors: Vitamins and Minerals
The respected New England Journal of Medicine recommended that for optimum health and nutrition, besides eating a nutrient-rich diet, we need to take a daily multivitamin.
What is so important about vitamins and minerals?
Here is some convincing research on vitamin-power. Ninety students were assigned to one of three groups: one received a multivitamin and mineral supplement; the second, an identical-looking placebo (dummy pill); and the third, nothing. After seven months, the IQ of those taking the supplements had increased by a staggering nine points! An increase of only five points would get half the learning disabled children out of special schools and back to normal schooling.
A high-potency multivitamin and mineral formula should form the basis of your supplement program, supplying adequate amounts of vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and assorted minerals – calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, chromium, and other trace minerals. They act as essential co-factors, or chemical helpers, in manufacturing your neurotransmitters. Without their help, the transformation of amino acids into neurotransmitters could not take place. The family of B vitamins protect you against depression, anxiety, stress, fatigue, mental dullness, and emotional fragility, and even boost your IQ.
Take extra antioxidants, such as 1000 mg of vitamin C and 400 I.U. of vitamin E. Add some essential fatty acids (1 gm of fish oil or flax oil) to further support brain and hormonal function.
If your fatigue (and the resultant stimulant cravings) lasts more than several weeks, it could be due to other causes, such as poor sleep and diet, chronic infection, and hormonal imbalances, such as underactive thyroid or adrenal glands, as discussed in more depth in my book, 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health. Consulting your healthcare provider first to check this out. Then, if your doctor can find no reason for your feeling tired, seek out professional advice on dietary, exercise, and nutritional alternatives.
Article Author: Hyla Cass M.D. is a physician practicing integrative medicine and psychiatry. She combines the best of natural medicine with modern science in her clinical practice and appears regularly on TV, radio, and has been quoted in many national magazines. A member of the Medical Advisory Board of the Health Sciences Institute and Taste for Life Magazine, she is also Associate Editor of Total Health Magazine, she has served on the boards of California Citizens for Health and the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM). She graduated from the University of Toronto School of Medicine, interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, and completed a psychiatric residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center/UCLA. She is the author of several popular books including: Natural Highs, 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health, and Supplement your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition.
Oakley, G. P. “Eat right and take a multivitamin.” New England Journal of Medicine (9 Apr. 1998): 1060–61.
Benton, D. “Effect of vitamin and mineral supplementation on intelligence of a sample of school children.” Lancet 1 (1988): 140–44.
James, J. “Acute and chronic effects of caffeine on performance, mood, headache, and sleep.” Neuropsychobiology 38 (1998): 32–42.
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