Get Energized for Good
How Blood Sugar and Oxygen Affect Your Energy
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.
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