24 ENERGY BOOSTING FOOD COMBOS THAT WORK AND WHY (PT. 1)
While our diet has a profound impact on our long-term health and metabolism, so do our eating habits. This is reflected in our day-to-day energy levels, our ability to focus, and the quality of sleep we get each night.
The following article explores the basic principles governing energy metabolism, the connection between our diet and energy levels (Part 1), as well as how to pair foods for sustained energy throughout the day(Part 2). Tips for enhancing digestion, sleep, and reducing the risk of developing insulin resistance are also discussed below.
Why Optimize Your Energy Levels? The Benefits Could Last a Lifetime
On an intuitive level, everyone prefers to have constant energy levels throughout the day. Optimal energy levels can help an individual achieve more, stabilize mood and enhance the overall quality of life.
Energy balance has been scientifically linked with most states of disease. When we do not feel well, we typically experience a lack of energy, either in general or for various daily tasks. Fatigue, erratic energy levels, and loss of concentration are evident across a wide variety of diseases, including diabetes, ADHD, cancer, depression, and more.
Working towards maintaining stable energy levels often means improving all aspects of our health and well-being, which are intricately tied to the body’s metabolic state. In this respect, optimizing energy levels can help to lessen the risk of acquiring diseases, alleviate symptoms, and may even extend your lifespan, as has been shown across studies.
What are Optimal Energy Levels? Defining Metabolic Balance
The definition of energy is ‘the capacity to do work’. Biologically, our energy levels are derived collectively from the output of cells of various tissues, the backbone of which is cellular respiration. Cellular respiration refers to the production and utilization of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) inside the mitochondria. Despite being considered the prime ‘energy molecule,’ cellular energy is more precisely captured by the movement of electrons inside the cell (i.e., the electron transport chain) as opposed to ATP alone. This is facilitated by the breakdown and movement of charged particles, including ATP (/ADP), NADH (/NAD+), and ions.
Cellular Respiration in Brief. The process of cellular respiration is initiated by the formation of ATP, which occurs via the oxidation (breakdown in the presence of oxygen) of nutrient substrates such as glucose and lipids. Through this process, both these substrates are converted into pyruvate and fed into the Krebs cycle, as per the electron transport chain. The Krebs cycle facilitates the production of vital cellular substrates, including basic amino acids and sugars used to build cellular products, cholesterol, and urea cycle intermediates. It also generates more ATP, which can be used to re-initiate the process all over again.
Mitochondrial Function and Energy Output. How the mitochondria function depends on many factors, all of which impact energy output and, in turn, our energy levels. Important aspects of mitochondrial function pertain to membrane permeability, oxygen concentrations, protein and ion availability, and oxidation status. The double membrane structure of mitochondria keeps the process of oxidation contained, allowing for the breakdown of substrates without causing damage to the cell. When metabolic needs increase, mitochondrial oxidation increases, which promotes mitochondrial membrane permeability. This allows oxygen radical species to enter the cytoplasm. Under normal circumstances, this serves as a cell signal that facilitates growth, regeneration, and other metabolism-related processes. Cellular antioxidants are essential in order to keep mitochondrial oxidation in check.
Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Warped Energy Levels. If metabolism becomes unbalanced, the mitochondria can be placed under stress (oxidative stress), resulting in the excessive release of pro-inflammatory oxygen radicals, membrane damage and mitochondrial dysfunction. Both excesses and deficits in basic nutrients can promote mitochondrial dysfunction, reduce energy output, promote inflammation and lead to erratic energy levels.
Blood Glucose Regulation and Energy Levels. In order to sustain a continuous energy supply, the body works towards maintaining stable blood glucose at concentrations required for optimal cellular respiration. Erratic fluctuations in blood glucose levels can promote mitochondrial oxidative stress, reduced energy output, and inflammation. After consuming a meal, blood sugar levels increase in response, which generally increases cellular activity, mitochondrial output and energy levels. The liver keeps blood sugar levels constant by storing excess glucose (as glycogen) and releasing it into the bloodstream when blood sugar levels dip. During fasting or when liver glycogen levels are low, other nutrient reserves are used up to produce energy, such as stored fat and amino acids.
Disentangling Energy Status and Fatigue. A part of having stable energy levels entails feeling tired at the right time, resting well, and getting deep sleep. Research suggests energy levels do not depend on perceived tiredness or general fatigue. Listed below are a few observations that back up this conclusion:
1) Fatigue is a feeling that requires optimal neurotransmission to achieve
2) Tiredness and fatigue lead to states of rest, including sleep, which requires energy in order to sustain
3) Rest and sleep play an important part in regulating energy production and overall metabolism in the body. Therefore, feeling tired at the right time is a healthy component of optimal energy metabolism.
Glycemic Control, Sleep and Energy Metabolism. Maintaining stable glucose levels support optimal energy metabolism, which generally improves the quality of rest and sleep. Despite being considered a state of rest, sleep is a crucial time for many active bodily processes, such as memory consolidation, brain waste clearance, and general growth and regeneration. During sleep, the body enters a nightly fasting phase in which blood glucose levels are maintained through liver-derived glucose. Optimizing glycemic control through dietary and lifestyle factors contributes towards stable metabolism during sleep as well. Likewise, a lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep results in hyperglycemia and erratic energy levels during the day and is associated with insulin resistance.
Dietary Factors That Influence Energy Levels
The kind of food we eat and when affects the degree to which our blood sugar levels rise throughout the day, as well as how much glucose gets stored or used. Our diet also impacts the availability of other nutrients conducive to mitochondrial function, energy production, and stable neurotransmission across tissues.
In terms of diet, there are three main influences that impact our day-to-day energy levels:
- Glycemic Load Regulation: Balancing Carbohydrates
Postprandial Glycemic Response. After we consume food, our blood sugar levels increase due to the metabolic response of the liver. The cells of the liver do not require insulin to absorb glucose and use nutrients from meals to store glucose for maintaining fasting blood glucose levels. Liver glucose production is inhibited during a meal and for up to 2 hours after as a result.
Preventing Hyperglycemia. When blood glucose levels increase too much in response to a meal (postprandial hyperglycemia), it often leads to erratic energy levels through increasing insulin production. This promotes rapid glucose utilization, a blood sugar dip, oxidative stress, and a rise in low-grade inflammation, as well as increased storage of fat in adipose tissues. Keeping blood glucose within healthy limits is important for maintaining optimal insulin and energy levels.
Insulin Resistance and Disease. If consistent enough, hyperinsulinemia promotes insulin resistance, where the insulin receptors on cells become faulty and eventually recede in numbers. Insulin resistance prevents glucose from reaching tissues, which signals the liver to produce more glucose to sustain energy production, leading to a state of chronically high blood glucose levels. In diabetics, chronic high blood glucose prevents the liver from producing more glucose, less insulin is produced and received, and eventually, tissues do not have enough glucose to sustain optimal energy production due to hypoglycemia. Postprandial hyperglycemia and insulin resistance have been shown to be prominent features of several other states of disease as well, including coronary heart disease, obesity, and various types of cancer.
Low Glycemic Meals for Energy Sustenance. Foods ranking low on the glycemic index are less likely to cause harmful spikes in blood sugar, lending themselves to sustain energy. Compared to a high glycemic diet, a low-GI diet has been associated with 26% lower scores for fatigue, 38% lower for depressive symptoms, and 55% lower for mood disturbance in healthy and obese individuals. Lower intake of highly glycemic carbohydrates is also linked with better sleep quality and longer periods of time spent in deep regenerative sleep.
Assessing Glycemic Food Potentials. Foods are assessed for their glycemic potentials in accordance with glycemic index and glycemic load:
- Glycemic Index refers to the potential a specific food has for raising blood glucose levels post-consumption relative to pure glucose. While useful, GI only compares the glycemic potential of foods with the same quantity of carbohydrates. It does not indicate the carb content based on food serving size.
- Glycemic Load is used to calculate the glycemic potential for the precise amount of carb a serving of food contains and is generally perceived as more accurate. The glycemic content of a food can be reduced when paired with other foods that have a lower glycemic load.
Types of Carbs. Carbohydrates are foods that consist of various types of sugars, which are required for optimal digestion, nutrient absorption, excretion of waste as well as maintaining optimal blood sugar levels. There are four main types of dietary carbohydrates: simple carbs, complex carbs, starches, and fiber.
Which Carbs Are Best? Generally speaking, consuming higher amounts of complex carbs and fiber are associated with a healthier gut and more stable blood glucose levels; while large amounts of dietary starch and simple carbs are associated with high or erratic blood glucose levels. This is due to the way in which complex carbs and fiber typically take longer to digest, resulting in the slower release of nutrients in small manageable quantities. For optimal blood sugar regulation, carbohydrate types should be balanced amongst themselves, as well as with dietary fats and proteins.
- Fat Metabolism
Fats constitute another important pathway for energy production and regulation. When blood glucose levels and insulin are low, the liver begins to burn fat in order to produce glucose from glycogen stores.
Fat Promotes Minimal Glucose and Maximal Energy Production. The glycerol portion of triglycerides can be used for glucose production, which accounts for between 5-15% of the triglyceride, depending on the type of fat present. The rest is used during energy production to form ATP and NADPH, or as a substrate for other cellular products. Fat is known to create twice the amount of ATP than glucose does and can enhance the energy output of carbohydrates. As seen in hyperglycemia and glucose excess, excessive fat burning for energy production increases mitochondrial oxidative stress and results in vascular inflammation.
Fat Invokes Delayed Glycemic Responses. Fats consumed alone promote glucose release by the liver, but not when the fat is consumed together with carbohydrates, as insulin inhibits fat burning and stimulates carbohydrate metabolism. When consumed with carbs, fat is able to lower the initial rise in blood glucose levels while promoting blood glucose elevations 3-5 hours after. If enough fat is consumed, this can result in delayed hyperglycemia.
Dietary Fat Slows Down Digestion. A moderate amount of fat in a meal also slows down digestion, which can help to extend satiety and slow the release of nutrients from food. It was shown that fat consumed at breakfast was able to slow down the digestion of lunch consumed 4 hours later. Long-term consumption of a high-fat diet negated these effects of fat on the rate of digestion.
Unbalanced Fat Consumption Promotes Structural Insulin Resistance. The fats in one’s diet further contribute to the structure of cells and the stability of the cell wall, which facilitates the optimal absorption of nutrients and excretion of waste products. It has been suggested that consuming a diet high in fat (and/or fat in the wrong ratios) contributes towards faulty energy production due to increasing membrane abnormalities and the risk of faulty glucose receptors.
- Dietary Protein Quality
Like fats, proteins also affect the quality of energy production and the stability of our blood glucose levels. Some amino acids can be used as a substrate for glucose or energy production, while the rest form necessary ingredients in sustaining the Krebs cycle, the electron transport chain, and many other vital cellular processes. The liver and other cells in the body typically rely on proteins as a fuel source when stored glucose and fats are unavailable, yet this conversion to glucose is minimal by comparison to other macronutrients.
Proteins Facilitate Energy Sustenance. When consumed together with carbs in moderation, proteins typically lessen postprandial hyperglycemia, increase insulin release and extend satiety by reducing hormone levels associated with hunger. While proteins can be used as an energy substrate, they mainly enhance the efficiency of glucose, and fat use in overall energy production, leading to increased energy consumption and a negative energy balance. In this way, proteins increase mitochondrial metabolism and encourage bodily stores of proteins, glucose and fats to be converted into cellular energy (as opposed to dietary sources). This is usually coupled with enhanced uptake of blood glucose, elevated insulin levels and an increase in liver glucose production. The glycemic response of proteins is typically less than that of carbohydrates or fats.
Proteins Affect Metabolic Hormones. High protein meals, as well as protein in isolation, have been shown to increase cortisol release and/or growth hormone, both of which contribute to raising blood glucose levels through signaling liver glucose production. Surges of these hormones in the early hours of the morning and during the fasting state promote the production of liver glucose from stored fats. It is also believed to be the underlying mechanism responsible for spiking blood glucose levels 3-5 hours after consuming protein, which is additively enhanced when proteins are consumed alongside fats.
Excessive Poor-Quality Protein Promotes Insulin Resistance. If consumed in excess over a long period of time, proteins may promote insulin resistance by increasing fasting glucose levels and the insulin response to food. High protein diets are associated with the incidence of diabetes and insulin resistance in muscle tissue. Despite these findings, the quality of protein may be more important than the quantity, as evidenced by long-term studies showing a lower prevalence of metabolic disease in those that consume higher amounts of protein from fish, legumes, or low-fat dairy products.
Digestibility of Protein. Complex proteins can be difficult for the body to digest due to being highly resistant to digestive juices. If there is a large amount of incompletely digested protein in the gut, it can increase the risk for gut irritation and lesions, leading to a more pronounced rise in cortisol, growth factors, and liver glucose production. A balanced ratio of gut bacteria is required to maintain the acidity of digestive juices and promote the complete digestion of protein in order to keep its metabolic effects in check.
- Antioxidant Status
Oxidation is a tightly regulated mitochondrial process critical to energy metabolism. The cell relies on antioxidants to keep oxidation balanced, produce adequate energy, and maintain all other cellular processes. As a result, the cell's level of antioxidant protection affects how much energy may be generated. Antioxidant deficits or excesses can lead to dysfunctional oxidation processes, energy deficits and even insulin resistance. The body tends to produce and accumulate antioxidant nutrients to assist with optimizing energy production and cellular metabolism. This also lends itself to the body’s ability to adapt to various environmental conditions.
While hyperglycemia increases cellular oxidation and can potentially lead to excessive inflammation, the cell’s capacity to manage the result is reflective of its antioxidant status. Those with diabetes have been shown to have reduced levels of antioxidants and higher oxidation levels as a result of chronically high fasting glucose levels. In animal studies, antioxidants have been proven to promote insulin sensitivity through reducing oxidative stress.
- The Gut Microbiome
Balanced gut bacteria ensure a slower, more controlled release of nutrients through fermentation and help to regulate nutrient absorption. Over and above digestion, gut microbes are in constant communication with the brain through the immune system and vagus nerve. Neurologic and immune alterations affect overall energy levels by impacting our eating habits, quality of sleep, immune processes, mood, and perceived energy levels.
Microbe-Derived Essential Short-Chain Fats and Metabolism. The fermentation of non-digestible fibers in the colon increases the production of short-chain fatty acids acetate, propionate, and butyrate. These three fats were found to be essential nutrients that only the gut microbiome can produce. It is estimated that roughly 10% of our energy requirements are derived from these fats. They are known to regulate energy metabolism, reduce inflammation, and are a vital fuel source for the cells of the colon. The liver converts them into longer-chain fats and cholesterol, as well as using them as an energy substrate for liver-derived glucose. These fats are also known to service peripheral tissues in the body, as well as to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Microbiome-derived short-chain fats may be able to regulate the quality of sleep, as deficits in them are common in those with insomnia.
Relationship Between Microbes and Hyperglycemia. An overabundance of bacteria specialized in fermenting carbohydrates (starch and simple sugars) has been linked with diabetes, obesity and inflammation, as well as an increase in amylase, glucose uptake and hyperglycemia risk. Hyperglycemia is known to reduce gut barrier function and increase permeability due to the resultant inflammation, leading to further gut and digestive disturbances.
Fiber-Fermenting Bacteria Promote Optimal Glycemic Control. Studies show that a higher diversity of fiber-fermenting gut bacteria is associated with a reduced risk for obesity, diabetes, better sleep quality, and optimal cellular energy metabolism. Bifidobacterium strains were linked with reduced diabetes risk, enhanced glycemic control, and lower levels of bodily inflammation.
Impact of Stress Hormones on the Gut. The release of stress chemicals can achieve similar effects by promoting liver glucose production and contributing towards hyperglycemia. Stress also induces microbial changes associated with inflammation, increased intestinal permeability, and dysbiosis.
Can Allergens or Pollutants Cause Erratic Blood Sugar and Energy Levels? Many allergenic foods and pollutants lower diversity in the gut, increase inflammation and gut permeability and are a cause of gut irritation. If chronic, gut irritation and inflammation can result in micro lesions in the gut, which may contribute towards postprandial hyperglycemia due to promoting low-grade stress and inflammation (associated with wounds).
24 Food Combos for Better Overall Energy Levels
To be continued in Part 2.
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