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Answering Your Questions: Boosting Your Energy Levels

This post is for Cheryl, but it’s also for my dear little brother, Shorty, who asked about this back before Thanksgiving.  I intended to have it up last night, but WordPress was chapping my hide and the post-writing amounted to a heckuvah fiasco.  In any case, today is a new day, so here it is—another post answering questions from Simple Spoonful readers.

The question: What can you do to stay awake and alert throughout the day without knocking back enough caffeinated beverages to float a battleship?  Shorty tends to nod off in college lectures without his Mountain Dew (shudder), and Cheryl laments The 3 pm Slump.  Unfortunately, food can’t cure it all (Shorty, for example, is only sleeping about 5 hours a day, and no strategically administered parsley or pinto beans or spaghetti squash can fix that), but there are some things that can help to an extent, assuming you don’t have a medical condition such as anemia, hypoglycemia, thyroid issues, or diabetes.  If you are abnormally tired despite sleeping a reasonable amount (8-9 hours), get to a doctor and get checked out.  However, if you just feel a little sluggish, here are some tips for you, in no particular order.

What to Eat (and What Not to Eat)

  1. Eat breakfast.  Really.  It doesn’t have to be a lot.  Just combine a little protein, a few carbohydrates, a little fat, and get it down the hatch.  Think: Cinnamon raisin toast with peanut butter.  Oatmeal with apples, flax, and walnuts.  A hummus sandwich.  Leftover soup.
  2. Give up sugar, white flour, corn syrup, and other highly refined carbohydrates, or cut way back on them.  Avoid making carb-centric meals.
  3. Eat 5-6 small meals with protein in each one instead of 3 large meals.  Aim to eat every 3-4 hours. For example, check out these sample mini-meals:
  • Sprinkle of nutty granola with1/2 c plain yogurt and fresh fruit (6 a.m. at home)
  • 1 slice toast or bread with nut butter (9 a.m. at work)
  • Large salad topped with veggies and a handful of cooked beans, with a homemade vinaigrette (12 p.m. at work)
  • Bowl of hearty chili from home (3 p.m. at work; if others can take coffee and cigarette breaks, you can take a soup break)
  • Small slice vegetarian shepherd’s pie with salad (6 or 7 p.m. at home).

Adapt these times and dishes as necessary; I used to make this work while teaching junior high with no ill effects, eating at about 5:45, 9:30, 12, 3:30, and 6:30.  Basically, I brought fruit and nuts to snack on at 9:30 while I was grading and planning (the kids were off in their electives), and I ate half my lunch at lunchtime (which worked fine, since I was usually scrambling to have 10 minutes to sit down then anyway) and the other half once the kids were out the door and before I went home. The combination of what I was eating and how I was eating it probably made the single biggest difference for me in my chronic exhaustion while teaching.  Well, that and exercise.  Why?  Blood sugar.

With these first three steps, the goal is to try to maintain a more steady blood sugar level during the day.  When you eat a meal that causes your blood sugar to rise significantly and quickly (either due to highly starchy/sugary content or oversize portions), you wind up with a bloodstream full of sugar.  Your body will do its best to dispatch that sugar, which means that, in a healthy body, the pancreas will release insulin to help shuttle the glucose (sugar) molecules into the cells.  I’m sure most people are familiar with the jitters or energy of a quick blood sugar spike, followed by the lethargy, crankiness, or headaches of the fall.  Once the sugar rush wears off and you’re deep in the thrall of a post-sugar coma, it’s easy to reach for more stimulants (sugar, caffeine, what have you) to boost yourself back up artificially.   Cue unhealthy, unending cycle.  Your best bet is to avoid the drama and eat several small, whole foods meals with protein throughout the day.

For the record, I do not believe that carbohydrates are evil.  I find them fairly agreeable little macronutrients, in fact.  Polite, conscientious, generally easy-going, you get the picture.  In short, whole grain carbohydrates have a place in a healthy diet.  That said, highly refined carbohydrates (such as white rice, white flour, and white sugar) and significant amounts of flour, even whole grain flour, are not adding much to your diet.  Because they are easily converted to glucose and can flood your system in a mad rush, they can contribute to insulin resistance (a precursor to Type II diabetes).  In addition, the lack of fiber can trigger you to eat more than you want or need. Go ahead and eat your grains, but make sure to consume them with protein, consume them in non-flour form more often than flour form (i.e., more rice, fewer pretzels; more barley, less bread), and eat them in their whole forms with the germ and bran intact whenever possible.

Beyond the Basics: Other Habits That Help

Beyond the basics of meal planning, there are some additional factors to keep in mind when you want to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

  1. Watch caffeine after noon.  It can affect you a lot longer than you think it can.  If you feel you have to drink caffeine to manage your current situation, drink it in moderation and cut yourself off early.
  2. Choose milder doses of caffeine rather than sharp jolts.  Enjoy weak coffee (sacrilege, I know) and try black, green, or white teas instead of coffee if you want to cut down on caffeine consumption.  According to the Mayo Clinic’s information on caffeine, black tea has about half the caffeine of regular coffee, and green tea can have anywhere from one-half to one-third as much caffeine as coffee.  In addition, the word (not at Mayo Clinic, which didn’t assess it) is that white tea has even less caffeine than green tea, though not by much. Keep in mind, a lot of the caffeine content is in how its brewed, so you can make up a lower-caffeine drink by steeping your tea just enough to color the water.
  3. Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed.  Eating later will keep your body from resting as deeply, as a lot of the hard work of digestion will be going full blast.  Time your meals so that when its time to rest, your body can actually do that.
  4. Force time to exercise.  Schedule it in, and obey the schedule.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but including physical activity in your day functions as a huge energy boost.  Obviously, I don’t mean for you to schedule 2 hours of boot camp every day with Atilla the Fitness Dictator (which could leave you totally wiped out), but 30-40 minutes of something that gets your heart rate up and keeps it there 4-5 times a week is a really good idea.  Shoot hoops with friends, take your dog for a walk or a run, ride your bicycle, or hit the gym.  Not only will your energy level go up, but physical activity is a great antidote to the winter blahs and blues.
  5. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens.  They’re full of nutrients your body needs to function effectively.
  6. Finally, it may just be me, but I notice a definite difference in my energy level based on how much raw food (fruits, veggies, and sprouts) I am consuming.  I find I perform better and feel more alert when I’ve been eating a good amount of raw foods, though a 90-100% raw diet gives me an unpleasant, nervous energy and a constant, low-level hunger.  That’s me.  You’ll have to find what works for you.  Personally, I try to shoot for some raw fruits and vegetables in each meal, whether that’s a salad, fresh salsa, or some fruit for desert.  During summer, I do a lot more raw foods.  During winter, I tend to slack somewhat.  On a cold day, avocado salad does not do it for me like shepherd’s pie.  What can I say?

I know some of you want to ask me about guaraná and herbal supplements to keep you going, but if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve already figured out that I am not an active advocate for supplements.  I think they have a place for certain people at certain times, but I prefer to limit consumption as a general rule.

Last Ditch Efforts: Sleep, Pre-Meditated Peeing, and Sunlight

Without trying to give anyone a hard time, I will say that the best suggestion I can give to combat fatigue is to sleep more.  I know from my experience working 60-70-hour weeks for months on end, that seems like a ridiculous suggestion—how am I supposed to sleep more when there’s no time?!  However, I did find on several occasions that if I took the extra hour to sleep, I was able to be more productive with the tasks I had to do and made up that hour later on, feeling better the whole time. Other than that: stretch frequently.  Move around as much as possible.  If you work in an office, walk over to someone’s desk rather than calling or IMing them with a question.  Drink plenty of fluids when you’re sleepy, if for no other reason than that it’s awfully hard to doze off when you really have to pee.

No, really.  That’s how I maintained consciousness in my high school geometry class. Anyway…

This time of year is a tough one. Many of us are getting up when it’s dark out and returning home when its dark out.  As a solar-powered human bean, I think this stinks.  That’s part of why I left Wisconsin for Arizona, but the days do get shorter here as well ’round about this time of the year.  If the sound of your alarm makes you weep quietly into your pillow every morning, you may want to try a light-based alarm clock.  Basically, it’s set on a timer to fake a sunrise in your bedroom.  The light starts off dim and grows stronger over a period of about 15 minutes.  For me, that’s enough to get me out of bed.  These lamps can be pricey, but a friend gave me one he wasn’t using last winter, when I was rolling out of bed at 5:20 every morning (after the weeping into the pillow bit).  It’s called Sunrise System, and I think it’s pretty slick.  The Sunrise System people didn’t give me anything to say that, either.  For me, it helped relieve some of my fatigue, though I think it’s most effective when you just need to get a half hour or 45 minute jump on the sun.  In other words, if you wake up to this light system, get dressed, have breakfast, and head to work…and it’s still dark out when you get there…well, my body didn’t just fall off the turnip truck yesterday.  It knows when it’s been hoodwinked.  And then it demands chocolate in recompense.  I will admit it: Probably 90% of my personal caffeine intake comes in the form of dark chocolate.

That’s all for now, folks.  Sweet dreams and good sleep to all of you!


3 Comments so far

  1. Andrea December 20th, 2008 6:40 pm

    The tip for drinking a lot of fluids works for me. I use that one a lot, and if I’m really tired, I drink a lot of ice water. Something about the cold water keeps me alert. Another tip that works for me is to take a 30-45 min “power nap” when I come home from work. Sometimes a short nap in a dark, quiet room feels like a 2-3 hour snooze, and I wake up refreshed enough to tackle what I have to get done before my official bed time. When all else fails, an 11-12 hr night of sleep on the weekend does wonders for catching me up on lost week-night sleep. I just have to be prepared for slight dehyrdation when I wake up.

  2. MangoChild December 21st, 2008 7:31 am

    Great post! And so appropriate for this time of year. I know I often feel down when I am out the door when still dark and back home from work in the pitch black. Going to the gym in the morning (yes, in the dark) helps a lot, just getting out of bed early and getting moving can motivate me for the day.
    And I agree about the food – eating fresh, non-fussy fruit and veg makes a difference in how I feel mentally and physically. Sometimes it helps to think about how the food was grown, how lucky I am to eat it, and the farmers that I know worked so hard to bring it to me. Kind of a connection.

  3. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? December 22nd, 2008 10:11 am

    When i was eating 100% raw my eyes would pop open at 6am and I wouldn’t get tired until after midnight…lots of energy all day long and I felt great! After I few months I gave up because it was a significant amount of work and discipline. But I do think fresh veggies and fruit are where it’s at! Come warmer weather I will start up again…

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