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Using food to increase your energy

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

How the right food can help to increase your energy naturally

In my clinical practice, probably the most common complaint that I hear from clients is about lack of energy. And this can present as tiredness or fatigue, but also lethargy, apathy, poor concentration and lack of motivation. Does any of this resonate with you?

Many people then turn to sugar, coffee or cigarettes or become ‘adrenalin junkies’ with high-powered jobs or exhilarating hobbies to regain a feeling of energy.

Energy is the currency of our body and modern life has created something of an ‘energy crisis’ - we all want more! We’re good at pushing hard and stealing sleep resulting in feeling exhausted for much of the time.

So called ‘unexplained fatigue’ is common place, not only in adults but in children too.

With just a few dietary and lifestyle changes we can help our bodies generate better levels of energy.

We can’t talk about energy in the body without talking about mitochondria as they are the energy powerhouses of the cells. They take the foods we eat and the oxygen we breathe and convert it to energy. They are organelles within the cell and perform specialised functions. The unique function of mitochondria is to generate life energy as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The mitochondria account for 10% of our body weight and generate and consume the body’s weight in ATP every day!

This energy fuels virtually every biochemical function in the body from protein synthesis and muscle contraction to digestive enzyme production and nerve conduction. The mitochondria accomplish this by using electrons, derived from the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in our food to produce ATP. So, the quality of our diet can have a direct impact on our body’s ability to make energy.

Cellular energy requirements control how many mitochondria are in each cell. A single cell can contain from 200 to 2000 mitochondria. The largest number of mitochondria are found in the most metabolically active cells, such as skeletal and cardiac muscle and the liver and brain.

Interestingly mitochondria also contain DNA (MtDNA) and are inherited from your mother only. So, while your nuclear DNA is composed of strands from both parents, mtDNA only comes from your mother. Unlike nuclear DNA they are not protected by a histone structure and are susceptible to damage from reactive oxygen-containing molecules. This damage can lead to a decline in energy production and may contribute to the aging process.

Without getting too technical energy production is the result of two closely coordinated metabolic processes, the Krebs Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain (ETC). To pass through this cycle completely the enzymes which catalyse the process require vitamin and mineral cofactors including the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3 and B5), iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc CoQ10 and lipoic acid. Diets deficient in micronutrients can accelerate mitochondrial decay and contribute to sub-optimal energy production. An optimum intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) could tune up your metabolism.

Toxic metals, especially mercury but also lead and arsenic, generate many of their damaging effects through the formation of free radicals resulting in DNA damage and depletion of the body’s anti-oxidant reserve.

When our mitochondria aren’t working well our metabolism runs less efficiently. Problems occur because these organelles are so sensitive and easily damaged and when that happens we suffer from low energy, fatigue, memory loss pain and aging.

So what do we do about it?

To optimise mitochondrial function and energy production a 3-part strategy is recommended:

1. Provide the nutrients needed for optimal mitochondrial function

2. Increase intake of antioxidants that protect the mitochondria

3. Reduce exposure to factors that damage the mitochondria

To optimise our nutrient intake we need to eat a wide range of colourful fruits and vegetables. We need to be aiming for 9-13 portions of vegetables and fruit every day, ideally incorporating all of the different colours.

We also need to be consuming optimal levels of omega-3 rich foods which includes oily fish, flax, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats help to build your mitochondrial membranes.

A calorie appropriate, phytonutrient dense diet will provide a range of vitamins and minerals but will also provide great levels of antioxidants. Since mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to damaging molecules we need to decrease our exposure to toxins in foods, personal care products, gardening products and home cleaning products and optimise our anti-oxidant intake.

There are some specific food-derived bioactive compounds or phytochemicals that be hugely beneficial:

  • Green tea polyphenols

  • Quercetin found in apples, pears, cherries, green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables

  • Allicin found in garlic

  • Resveratrol found in fruits and best known from the skins of red grapes

  • Curcumin found in turmeric

  • Sulforaphanes found in cruciferous vegetables, e.g. broccoli

Particular nutrients that support mitochondrial function include the following:

  • Nutritional anti-oxidants (Vit A, C, E and glutathione)

  • Vitamin B complex – in methylated form

  • Acetyl-L-carnitine

  • Alpha lipoic acid

  • Magnesium

  • N-acetyl-cysteine

  • Coenzyme Q10

  • NADH

  • Branched chain amino acids

Please get in touch for a targeted and comprehensive supplement protocol that is appropriate for your body’s requirements.

It goes without saying that certain lifestyle factors are also going to impact energy levels.

Firstly, you need to get moving! Strength training increases the amount of muscle and the number of mitochondria and interval training increases the efficiency and function of your mitochondria. It is important to not only challenge your body with physical exercise but also your brain with cognitive exercise.

And the other obvious ones: Take a break from alcohol, take care of sleep and don’t smoke!

Here’s a summary to optimise your body’s ability to create energy (IFM, 2015):

  1. Eat a calorie appropriate, phytonutrient dense diet – use food first!

  2. Avoid all processed, refined foods – cut out the beige diet.

  3. Balance your blood sugar with lean protein and healthy fats with some complex carbohydrates at each meal.

  4. Optimise intake of healthy omega -3 fats.

  5. Eat and drink colourful antioxidant rich foods and beverages.

  6. Switch from caffeinated beverages and give alcohol a break.

  7. Avoid toxins in foods, personal care products and in the home and garden.

  8. Challenge your body and brain with physical and cognitive exercise.

  9. Schedule some down time including a digital detox, and schedule in optimal sleep.

  10. Don’t smoke!

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