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I'm sitting in the office of David Yaden, a mind-body health expert, at the Community Biofeedback Clinic in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, my right hand splayed on a wood-paneled countertop. One by one, he clips little white sensors to my fingertips. I stare at the multicolored lines and bars dancing across the computer screen. We're monitoring changes in my skin temperature, heart rate, blood volume, and skin conductance (amounts of sweat secreted by my eccrine glands). Currently my vitals are doing a relaxed mambo on the monitor.
"Think of something that makes you stressed," Yaden instructs. I squeeze my eyes shut and conjure a kaleidoscopic image of work deadlines and family obligations. A second later my breathing goes ragged and my heart begins to flutter. "Open your eyes." I look at the Everest-esque spikes on the screen. "Your heart response and skin conductance jumped four times their base levels," he says. Translation: Calm thoughts, steady physiological energy; stressful thoughts and, whish, my sympathetic nervous system's energy output skyrockets to go along with the demands of an escalating heart rate, rising sweat production, and blood pumping like crazy.
Now that I've discovered a major energy "leak" in my body, the question is what to do about it. Controlling my thoughts, Yaden tells me, is key to protecting my energy reserve. But it's not an easy task. With one sensor glued to the top of my head and two clipped to my earlobes, I stare at another monitor, this one showing a computer-generated image of a river flowing through a canyon. My mission is to focus on the water in such a way that an optimum balance of brain waves keeps it moving across the computer screen. The sensors measure my beta waves (the high-energy workhorses in charge of active thought and problem solving) and theta waves (the daydreamy ones that help you conjure pleasant images but also distract you from the task at hand). Learning to maximize my beta and theta wave ratio, Yaden explains, will help me be more focused and waste less mental energy.
The implications extend far beyond a mental exercise. Brain waves produce neuropeptides, chemicals that have a profound impact on our mood and general health. Every thought counts, says Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Massachusetts. For instance, when your boss walks into your cube and says, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" your beta waves flare; this fires up your fight-or-flight center, also known as your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates digestion, mood, and energy expenditure. "This in turn triggers a surge in stress hormones, which raise your heart rate and blood pressure," Domar says. "In today's society, that happens many times a day." The eventual result: fatigue. You can't concentrate, your mood plummets, your sleep suffers, and your weight may rise.
A solution, progressive muscle relaxation techniques, has been found effective by researchers, but it takes time to master. Yaden has me close my eyes, breathe deeply, and concentrate on releasing tension from every muscle from my scalp to my soles, until I feel heavy and at ease. On the computer screen, my vitals return to their pleasant mambo. The energy-draining stress is gone. "With enough practice you'll be able to conjure up that 'beach feeling' of contentment no matter where you are," Yaden says.
Contented, rather than frenetic, energy is what many of us crave -- and what few achieve. In my quest to find my own, I visited some top research labs to be poked, prodded, and worked into a sweaty state, all in the name of science. What I learned about the culprits that tamper with my energy tank can help you keep yours full.
As difficult as it is to think calm thoughts while you're awake, it's sleep that really does you in. "Ideally, sleep is like beautiful music, where every note comes at the right time and creates this architecture of sleep that is restorative," says Ana Krieger, MD, medical director for the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. She is referring to the four stages of sleep that the brain cycles through every 90 minutes. "We don't have much input into creating the symphony. But we can disrupt it."
At Dr. Krieger's center, people with sleep disorders spend the night in bed hooked up to intensely wired monitoring equipment while technicians record variables that could be contributing to the patients' problems. I arrive at the center with hopes of discovering what's causing mine. Though I aim for a solid eight hours, for years I've woken up throughout the night with racing thoughts. Once I settle into my overnight accommodation, I'm visited by Karen, the sleep tech, who appears with a thick tangle of candy-colored wires and sensors cascading like party streamers from her hands. "We're going to put these electrodes on you; don't worry, it's not painful," she says, seeing the look of concern on my face.
Thirty minutes later I'm fully strapped -- two belts around my chest and belly to monitor respiration, sensors on each calf to check for restless leg syndrome, nine additional sensors plastered to my head to monitor brain waves. Now the worst part: Two prongs go up my nostrils and one hangs over my lips to keep track of breathing, and a probe on my finger monitors my oxygen levels. "This part is what people complain about most," she says. No kidding. As I wriggle about in bed and adjust the tickly nose prongs, I worry I'll be up all night...until I'm dreaming. It's not my best night of slumber, but it's enlightening.
As is typical, I awaken around 2 a.m., look at the clock, start thinking about the 10,000 things I have to do and begin counting backward from 50 in an attempt to squelch the mind racing. It works the first time. The 3 a.m. awakening is tougher to shake; at 4 a.m. I toss and turn, hoping to get some final shut-eye before the long day ahead.
Sitting in Dr. Krieger's office, wires and tubes removed, I delve further with her into the factors affecting my sleep. I mention the racing thoughts. "It's common to run through your worries at night, especially right as you lie down," she assures me. In fact, the key to not waking up at 3 a.m. is to get all the stressing out right when you hit the sack so you can put a plug in that stream of consciousness and the brain can move on to more important matters, like REM. Dr. Krieger suggests a bedside worry journal. "Write your concerns in bullet-point form and assign a time the next day to address them," she says. That way you're not pretending your problems don't exist; you're simply scheduling a more appropriate time to work through them.
A bigger culprit robbing me of sleep, Dr. Krieger says as we discuss my daily routine, is probably a little habit I have with caffeine. How many espressos had I had the day before? Um, one, two, three, four...could it be six? I tell her I'm not caffeine sensitive. She tells me otherwise: Every time I use caffeine, it binds to my brain's nerve receptors, speeding them up. All this neuron activity shoots an emergency signal to my pituitary gland, and I get a shot of adrenaline; hence the buzz. The half-life of caffeine is about six hours, so even if your last java is at 4 p.m., it can leave caffeine flowing through your system at 10 p.m., messing up your sleep.
Of course, for caffeine to interact with your nervous system, it first has to make its way into your bloodstream, the primary conductor of your body's energy. "Crucial elements for your energy -- oxygen and glucose -- are carried by your bloodstream and delivered to cells in your body, where they're converted into energy by the mitochondria," says Brooke Kalanick, a naturopathic doctor in New York City. "Unless you can adequately manage your blood sugar, or glucose, and your oxygen intake and delivery, your body simply can't run efficiently."
To figure out how my blood management is going, I head to a blood lab facility near my home in Pennsylvania, where a vial of the liquid is drawn. Results from the tests are shipped off to Kalanick, who analyzes them from a nutritional and optimal-energy perspective. I thought I was doing a good job. Turns out, not so much.
My fasting glucose is a bit high, she tells me after reviewing the file. My good cholesterol (HDL) is very high, which is great news. Unfortunately, my red blood cell indices are also high, which isn't ideal, since red cells that are too small or too big don't carry oxygen optimally. Plus, my thyroid levels are slightly off, which can put hormones and energy out of whack. Yikes.
To come up with a game plan for getting back on track, I shoot two days of food and exercise logs to Stacy T. Sims, PhD, exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist at Stanford University and an expert on healthy eating plans for active women. She pulls no punches. "Looking at your diet, I see a lot of sugar. Where's your protein?" Like millions of women, Sims says, I don't consume enough of the right foods early in the day, which leaves the tank hovering too close to empty and vulnerable to 3 p.m. pantry invasions in search of snacks.
"We all know the feeling of waking up tired and downing a cup of coffee and a Danish on the way to the office for a pick-me-up," Kalanick adds. You feel superenergized for an hour or so, then boom, back down to earth -- so you grab more coffee and plow through work until you realize it's 2 p.m., you haven't had lunch yet and you're sluggish. Toss in a late lunch and mid-afternoon M&M's and your energy levels swing from low to high to low to high...and leave you tired by day's end, despite your having taken in plenty of calories.
For my revised meal plan, Sims advises me to front-load the day with a breakfast of fiber-rich whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fat (think whole wheat toast with scrambled eggs). In the afternoon, she tells me, I'm better off skipping my usual chocolate bar (well, yeah, I was pretty sure I had that coming) and eating a protein-based snack, like zero-percent-fat Greek yogurt, instead. "Protein takes more effort to digest, so it raises your metabolism and energy levels as your body goes to work," she says. "Plus, it helps your muscles repair themselves after a workout."
Though refined carbohydrates can mess with energy levels, it turns out that given my active lifestyle, I've been too careful about avoiding carbs in general. Both Sims and Kalanick tell me that by eschewing grains and starchy carbs, I've been shortchanging myself of the important energy source, glucose, which has to be consumed in moderation throughout the day. Sims also points out that I need to get away from eating processed foods. The fix: incorporating complex carbs, including whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal, and root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, into every meal. It's a tweak with a big payoff: In three days' time, my energy is noticeably more even.
The second role of your blood is to deliver oxygen to your muscles and organs, important for helping us pursue the activities we love -- in my case, mountain biking. As a rule, she who can fill her bloodstream with the most oxygen has the best shot at reaching her goal, whether it's surviving a kickboxing class or winning a half-marathon. To improve that capacity, first you need a baseline of how much oxygen your blood can currently transport and deliver to your working muscles.
That's why I'm at the Human Cardiovascular Research Laboratory in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, pedaling furiously on a stationary bike. I'm huffing and puffing into a sealed mouthpiece so a sports physician can collect and analyze every milliliter of O2 that I inhale and exhale. The resistance increases steadily and my breathing becomes more rapid until I "go anaerobic," meaning I am no longer taking in enough oxygen to keep up with the demands of my muscles. Translation: burning thighs to the point where I have to stop pedaling. From this test I am able to learn my V02 max, or the maximum milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight that I use in a minute, and my lactate threshold, the point at which the demand for oxygen surpasses my body's ability to take it in and deliver it efficiently to my muscles.
What does this mean in terms of everyday energy use? I send my charts over to Josh O'Brien, an exercise physiologist at the Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who works with some of the city's top sports teams.
"Oxygen is the fuel that helps you sustain your efforts in a workout," O'Brien says. The higher the intensity you can sustain before the "burn" gets too intense, the more calories your body will use and the fitter you will become.
Though my VO2 numbers are strong and my lactate threshold is high, O'Brien points out that even if you have a low threshold, you can improve it with proper conditioning. The best way to train your body to use oxygen more effectively: intervals. After a good warm-up on the bike or treadmill, increase your speed and/or resistance until you're working nearly as hard as you can for one minute. Recover at an easy pace for two minutes. Repeat five to 10 times. When you push the intensity to your upper limit for short spurts, your body adapts by pumping out more blood per heartbeat and increasing its ability to take in oxygen and clear lactate. Your fat-burning zone, that coveted point at which you're burning stored fat rather than carbs, becomes bigger, so you can exercise harder and longer before your muscles go into the red.
A final piece of the energy puzzle is muscle mass, O'Brien says. The more your body is made up of muscle instead of fat, the more strength you'll have for daily activity. Though I'm proud of my lean, mean biking-machine body, keeping it that way will only get harder as I get older, O'Brien says, explaining that women are naturally programmed to shed about a half pound of muscle every year after age 30. With it goes potential energy. The good news: You can counteract nature's course with strength-training. For most women that means incorporating twice-weekly weight-training sessions into their cardio routines to gain and maintain active lean tissue. "A leaner body composition also means less fat, so you have less inactive tissue weighing you down," he says. Of course, lean, shapely muscles look better in skinny jeans, too. And that alone is worth the energy.
Take a stand. "The less overall activity you do, the less energy is required to keep you functioning, because you're not using your active tissue," says Sims. Desk jobs can be major energy drainers: Fat-burning enzymes start switching off when you're inactive for too long, and they can plummet 50 percent or more after a full day of not standing, research shows. Every 30 minutes, stand and stretch.
Walk it off. Feeling the mid-afternoon slump? "Movement creates energy," says Robert E. Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Calm Energy. Thayer's research has found that just 10 minutes of brisk walking can increase energy for two hours. "In 10 minutes of walking, your brain is infused with the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, which increase alertness."
Get the right mix. The fastest way to have sustainable energy without a crash is via a snack that includes carbs, protein, and a little fat (crackers with peanut butter; yogurt and a slice of whole wheat bread). Fats give you an immediate boost, complex carbs sustain blood sugar levels, and protein keeps your energy up for several hours.Get More Energy
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2011.