More energy is something most of us desire, whether we’re college students studying for finals, or newly retired and trying to keep up with our grandchildren. Although many of us reach for a second – or third, or fourth – cup of coffee, the most sustainable and effective solution lies at the foundation of our nutrition and lifestyle.
Energy is produced in the body in a number of different ways, but it all starts with the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, and the wavelengths of light we absorb through our eyes and skin. Calories themselves are units of energy, and are derived from the carbohydrates, proteins and fats found in our food. Beyond calories, certain vitamins and minerals play a role in energy production on a cellular level. What we choose to eat has a major impact on our overall energy and performance.
Although certain stimulants such as caffeine, ginseng, and other adaptogenic herbs can provide a temporary feeling of alertness and energy, these substances don’t address the root cause of fatigue, or provide long term results. The most effective way to sustainably increase energy is by supporting the cells within our bodies.
Within the cell, an organelle called the mitochondria produces a substance called ATP. ATP is the basic molecule of energy within our cells, and it controls our performance within every organ and every system of our body. Without sufficient cellular energy, we are left feeling weak, sluggish, dull, and generally fatigued. Low ATP is often indicated by a decline in both physical energy levels as well as cognitive function and mental performance. When the production of ATP suffers, every function in every part of our body is slowed down.
Everybody can benefit from supporting their cells, but it should be a particular focus for those with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, MS, and any degenerative condition of the brain. Other risk factors for ATP depletion and compromised cellular health include chronic stress, inflammation, weakened immune system or autoimmunity, insomnia or other sleep disorders, and increased exposure to toxins or heavy metals.
There are many ways to improve mitochondrial function and increase cellular energy. Maintain a healthy sleep schedule and optimize your circadian rhythm by getting ample exposure to natural light such as the sun, candlelight, and fire, and minimize exposure to synthetic sources of blue light including fluorescent lighting, electronic devices, and LED’s. Always strive to consume a nutrient dense diet that includes healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids and saturated fats, high quality sources of animal proteins, a variety of seasonal vegetables and fruits, fresh herbs, and other traditionally prepared foods such as fermented foods and bone broth. Avoiding common toxins such as pesticides, mold, air pollution, and chemicals in household cleaners can help prevent damage to our cells, which inhibits energy production.
Beyond these steps which will improve energy and optimize overall health, supplemental vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can aid in our bodies’ ability to produce energy. B vitamins play a key role in converting calories we eat into cellular energy, and have the additional benefit of supporting red blood cell production. Deficiency of B12 is linked to anemia and as a result, can cause extreme fatigue. B12 is found strictly in animal foods, especially organ meats, egg yolks, and muscle meat. For supplements, B vitamins are best taken together in a complex in order to optimize absorption and prevent depletion of other nutrients. Look for B vitamins in their biologically active form to ensure they are properly absorbed and utilized by the body.
Other key nutrients include magnesium and coenzyme Q10, both which increase ATP, and aid in overall cellular protection and regeneration.
The richest source of Coenzyme Q10 is in heart, or supplements of the active form of CoQ10 can be taken. Make sure to look for ubiquinol form, which has a higher absorption rate than its inactive precursor, ubiquinone. Magnesium can be found in abundance in leafy greens, and in smaller amounts in muscle meat.
Providing the body with the raw materials to produce cellular energy and support mitochondrial health is the most effective and sustainable way to increase energy in the long term. Short term solutions such as stimulant herbs and caffeine can stress the adrenals and perpetuate the feeling of fatigue, leading to burnout.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.