Popeye made it look so easy. Whenever Olive Oyl sounded the distress cry, he’d grab a can of spinach, rip it open and toss it back. In seconds flat, he’d be bursting with all the energy he needed to save the day.
We might chuckle at Popeye’s exaggerated transformations, but are our own energy-sourcing antics so different? Consider your typical day. Mid-morning, when your energy starts dragging, you probably reach for a quick fix. Maybe it’s a cup of coffee. Maybe it’s a doughnut, a chocolate bar or a soda. By midafternoon you’re likely trying to muscle through another dip – perhaps with a repeat of the morning’s strategies, perhaps employing sheer willpower. Depending on where and when fatigue strikes, you may rely on all sorts of different techniques to help you push through.
The result? Like Popeye, you may get a lot accomplished. But when you repeatedly force your body to work against fatigue – several times a day, for weeks or months at a time – your health pays the price. Over time, most of the stopgap measures we rely on to close our momentary energy lapses wind up opening up even deeper chasms of their own.
Unlike Popeye’s spinach, repeated infusions of caffeine and processed sugar can contribute to blood-sugar imbalances, adrenal fatigue, even pre-diabetes. Working too-long hours and regularly skimping on sleep can lead to weight gain, stress, depression and impaired mental function. Instead of strengthening our systems and helping us become more adept, all of these solutions work against the natural mechanisms that protect and support our health. They deplete our reserves, setting us up for even bigger energy deficits down the road.
Look at it this way: Energy is your capacity to do work, to think, to create, to participate, to contribute, to enjoy, to live. Energy is what gives you physical strength and muscular endurance for physical activity. It’s also what gives you mental alertness for noticing, thinking and problem solving. That’s why good energy management, perhaps even more than good time management, is one of the most essential requirements for a rich, productive and satisfying life.
Clearly, it makes no sense to do major, lasting damage to our valuable energy machinery merely to gain a few brief, temporary bursts of speed. But that is what many of us do each and every day. And then we wonder why life seems so hard, and why we feel so exhausted.
If you’ve been burning the candle at both ends lately, or running on fumes for as long as you can remember, this is your wake-up call. But fear not, overachievers. You don’t have to say goodbye to maximal productivity and success. In fact, by learning to manage your energy intelligently – as opposed to tricking your body into a series of inefficient, forced accelerations – you are likely to find yourself feeling more energetic and productive than you have in years.
Going to the Source
The processes that create energy in your body are extraordinarily complex. At the cellular level, they involve multiple, interacting factors, including nutrients, oxygen, hormones and peptides, all of which work against a backdrop of daily bodily cycles.
Because there are so many factors involved in creating and sustaining energy, there is no one, simple, sure-cure strategy for churning out more of it. But by integrating some key changes to your diet, daily schedule, exercise regimen, sleep pattern and life outlook, you can easily tap into a far more consistent, dependable flow of energy than you ever realized possible. Best of all, you can enjoy your life far more in the process.
Ready to get started? Begin by building your familiarity with the energy-generating know-how in the pages that follow. Then start putting a few of them into practice and see if you notice a difference in how you feel and function. It’s a good bet you’ll never go back!
Energy and Rest Cycles
You may have heard about circadian rhythms, the sleep/wake cycles that occur every 24 hours. They’re important to your body’s energy use, but there’s another type of rhythm – ultradian – that has an even bigger impact on energy generation. “Ultradian” refers to any cycle that repeats itself a number of times within the 24-hour period. Every body system, including heart rate, body temperature, digestion, memory and muscle strength, is governed by its own ultradian cycle and associated peaks and troughs. You experience the high points of ultradian cycles as bursts or flows of physical energy, alertness and creativity. You experience the low points as periods of fatigue, distraction and diminished capacity.
“Most people don’t know they have a natural 90- to 120-minute period of energy,” explains psychobiology researcher and therapist Ernest Rossi, PhD, who explored the influence of ultradian rhythms in his book The 20 Minute Break (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1991). “Research indicates that all our major mind-body systems of self-regulation, including the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system, have rest-activity cycles.”
After 90 to 120 minutes of peak activity, he explains, the human system goes into an energy dip for approximately 20 minutes, during which you may feel physically fatigued, mentally unfocused, hungry or grumpy. It’s during these dips, says Rossi, that each of the body’s systems replenishes its energy supply at the cellular level.
During an active phase, a cell extracts energy from adenosine triphosphate or ATP, changing it to adenosine diphosphate or ADP. During rest, the cell uses oxygen and blood glucose to change the ADP back to ATP.
Giving It a Rest
When you’re on a vacation, you probably live by your cycles and are wonderfully energized as a result. You might play in the waves for 90 minutes, then lounge on your beach towel for 20. But daily life is different. After about 90 minutes of top performance, when our concentration, energy, vigor and creativity are at their peaks, we start to feel a natural dip. We yawn, daydream, get fidgety; our concentration begins to break. At this point, many of us reach for a cup of coffee and a sweet snack to give ourselves a blood-sugar boost, hoping to jump-start our mental focus.
Pumped up with caffeine and sugar, we rally until the next dip, which comes, predictably, 90 to 120 minutes later. Again, we ignore the need for a break, and we continue the cycle throughout the day. By afternoon, we’re not dealing with a little energy dip anymore. We’ve dug a major trench and our cells need a double or triple rest period to fully replenish their energy supply. But they rarely get it.
Continuously ignoring the rest cycle over time leads to the classic symptoms of stress. In the short term, those might include headaches, skin problems, digestive difficulties and irritability. Down the road you may be looking at bigger problems like heart disease and depression. Ignoring your energy cycles is like swimming against the current: You end up with only exhaustion to show for your efforts.
To replenish your energy throughout the day, you need to work with your ultradian cycles, not against them. That means avoiding uninterrupted hours of steady-state activity, whether that’s deskwork, hard labor or wall-to-wall meetings. Ideally, says Rossi, after a period of activity, you should give yourself 20 minutes of complete relaxation.
Best-case scenario: You would lie down, breathe deeply, tune inward and just let your mind wander. But even if you can’t get horizontal and totally check out, you can (and should) find other ways of giving your energy system a rest, even if it’s for 10 minutes, and not the full 20.
“We need these brief periods of rest while every cell of our body makes ATP,” says Rossi. When the body is allowed a break after intense activity, he says, it can “replenish the energy stores in the pituitary and hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, and the endocrine system, so that we can once again perform at our best during the active phase.” Once you’ve had your ATP boost, you can go back to what you were doing, feeling refreshed and productive.
If total rest isn’t possible, take any break you can: Switch activities and downshift to a lower gear, for as close to 20 minutes as you can, given the constraints of your schedule. Do some filing; make a phone call that requires little mental effort; take a bathroom break from a meeting and walk around the floor; clean up your desktop; stare out the window; step outside for a walk around the building and a little sunshine.
You can boost the power of your ultradian cycles by planning for them throughout the day. At the beginning of each day, make a to-do list that’s prioritized from high-energy-consuming tasks to low. Instead of heading straight down your list, cycle through the high- and low-intensity tasks. This way, says Rossi, “you don’t waste precious peak moments of high energy on less important work.” The bonus: You may actually end up getting a lot more done.
Food is another huge factor in the energy equation, and it also ties in with your ultradian rhythms. Your digestion is primed for input every 90 to 120 minutes, according to Rossi. So as long as you are fueling intelligently, you can let go of your guilt about “snacking between meals.” By eating when your body is ready for food, you’ll absorb nutrients more readily and maintain a steadier supply of energy. Here’s how to make certain the food you eat results in energy you can use.
- Start with breakfast: You can swing your body’s ultradian rhythms into action by eating breakfast – ideally at the same time every day. “When you eat breakfast, you kick-start your metabolism. With breakfast, the body says, ‘Now I can start revving up,’” says Jon Gordon, MA, author of Become an Energy Addict (Longstreet Press, 2003). Of note if you’re trying to lose weight: “What’s good for your energy levels,” says Gordon, “is good for weight loss, too.”
- Eat often. “The traditional recommendation of three square meals a day is actually out of sync with our underlying ultradian needs,” says Rossi. “If we heeded our ultradian rhythms, we would eat not three times each day, but six.” Multiple smaller meals coincide with your body’s innate readiness for nourishment every 90 minutes. By providing quality food when your body is ready for it, you will feel more satisfied, Rossi says. You never get so hungry as to overeat, and you lessen your chances of reaching the breaking point where all you want is salt, sweets and fat.
- Eat the right combination.The ideal foods will create a slow, steady stream of healthy sugars and nutrients into your blood. The worst foods: Refined carbohydrates that create a sudden spike of blood sugar. Your body counters blasts of blood sugar with high amounts of insulin, which swiftly removes and stores excess blood sugar, leaving you once again low on the fuel you need to think and move.The key: For each of your three main meals and snacks, strive to eat healthy carbs, proteins and fats in fairly balanced caloric proportions. “By always combining your food this way,” explains Darlene Kvist, MS, a nutritionist with Nutritional Weight and Wellness in St. Paul, Minn., “you’ll get a more even blood-sugar response that brings a smoother, more sustained energy delivery. You get weight-control benefits as well, since you’re always eating healthy foods and never getting to the point of extreme hunger.” An added bonus: High-protein foods break down into amino acids, which support the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical communicators between your cells. Many of these, such as dopamine, heighten alertness and energy. (See Related Articles at right.)
- Eat high quality. Consider the quality of what you put in your body. Unhealthy fats, especially, can impair brain function, which reduces your available energy. Your brain is 60 to 80 percent fat, with each cell membrane made of fatty acids, explains Kvist. “If you’ve created your membranes from healthy fats like olive oil, they’re resilient and flexible. Messages can go in and out quickly,” she says. Trans fats from sources like deep-fried foods and hydrogenated fats, however, are structurally different. They contribute to membranes that are harder, more brittle and susceptible to leaks and holes. Messages pass with difficulty, while vital cell structures, including the mitochondria, the cell’s energy factory, can slip out, leading to cell death. Some researchers believe this to be a significant cause of chronic fatigue. At the very least, poor-quality fats impair the production of available energy, says Kvist.
Turbo-Charge Your Bod
Food isn’t the only fuel for energy. Oxygen provides the spark that ignites the fuel. To train your body to use more oxygen, you must exercise, says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist with MyExercisePlan.com. A workout also stimulates the release of hormones in your body that lift your mood and energy level. You can schedule a workout, or even a walk, to give yourself a more energetic afternoon, or you can create a plan to enhance your use of O2 for the long haul. Here’s how.
- For energy today or tomorrow, boost it by exercising within your capacity. When you’re busy and every bit of your energy is in demand, the right dose of exercise can energize you; too much can overwhelm your already-depleted reserves. The solution: Do just enough to stimulate your system. You’ll receive the oxygen and hormonal benefits without the need for increased rest and recovery. Exercise for at least 20 minutes at about 60 percent of your maximum – an exertion level that is hard, but not very hard. For some people, this might mean a walk, for others it might mean three 7-minute miles. You should end the workout feeling energized and as if you could continue, says Cotton. This sort of exercise works well as a stimulating break from steady-state mental work. But if that’s your goal, says Cotton, make sure you really are giving your brain a break. Turn off the TV or talk radio; don’t listen to the news or run stressful scenarios in your mind.
- For the long term, strive to go beyond your current fitness capacity. “Your body adapts to exercise by increasing your blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity as well as your heart’s pumping efficiency,” explains Cotton. A fit body delivers more oxygen. In addition, trained muscle is packed with mitochondria, the factories in each cell that swipe oxygen from blood and turn it into energy. To train your heart and muscles to increase their energy output, you have to exercise regularly at a level more than 60 percent of your heart’s maximum capacity (on an exertion scale, this would be hard or very hard). Incorporating some high-intensity interval training into your regular exercise routine encourages your body to adapt by developing greater capacity, advises Cotton.
Your body’s largest cycle is its 24-hour sleep/wake routine, known as the circadian rhythm. While it seems easy to overthrow the shorter ultradian cycles with coffee or a snack, it’s much harder to stop the swing of hormones and body chemistry that govern your sleepiness, alertness and physical performance over the course of a day and night.
“When you’re awake, chemicals accumulate in your brain that promote sluggishness,” says Teo Postolache, PhD, associate professor at the University of Maryland and director of the mood and anxiety program at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore. During sleep, those chemicals are whisked away, and the brain chemicals responsible for alertness are replenished. Without enough sleep, your efforts to fight fatigue leave you with less energy for everyday tasks.
The entire body gets a chemical and hormonal overhaul while you’re in the Land of Nod. Your ability to metabolize glucose, to secrete thyroid-stimulating hormone and to produce leptin (a hormone that stimulates feelings of fullness after a meal and that discourages unwanted weight gain) are all tuned and boosted during sleep. For these reasons, researchers believe that sleep deprivation contributes to obesity. “The effects of sleep on neurotransmitters and hormones is huge,” says Postolache.
Figure out how much you need by gauging how long you sleep when given the chance (healthy people will find it difficult to sleep more than they need to), then stick to that number as regularly as you can. According to Postolache, the early hours of sleep (10 p.m. to 2 a.m., for example) are most important for the body systems that help with performance.
For those occasions when you still didn’t get enough sleep, there is a possible shortcut – assuming you are one of those lucky folks who can fall asleep quickly, doze briefly and wake feeling refreshed, not drugged. Naps allow your brain and body to “replenish the energy stores in the pituitary and hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, and the endocrine system,” says Rossi, “so you can once again perform at your best.” But for those with nighttime insomnia, Rossi advises against naps because they can further disrupt these individuals’ already-irregular sleep patterns.
Energy on Purpose
Finally, any energy approach wouldn’t be complete without honestly assessing how you spend your waking hours. While we tend to think of energy as a physical quality, notes Gordon, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that energy flows in the mental, emotional and spiritual realms as well. And all of these energy byways intersect and feed each other, for better or worse.
For example, you might be in great physical shape but stuck in a bad relationship or a dead-end job. Or you might be an emotionally happy person who doesn’t exercise or eat enough healthy foods. Or it might seem like you’re doing just about everything right on the surface but be disconnected from a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Unless you are caring for and connected to all the energy sources in your life, you’re likely to feel drained.
“Imagine yourself as an energy vending machine,” Gordon suggests. “If you always give energy away, you’ll eventually be sold out. You need to be constantly stocking up.” You can do this through good nutrition, enjoyable forms of activity and movement, relaxation, creative endeavors, love, healing touch, good friendships, sleep, fun, meditation, satisfying work – any pursuit that brings a sense of joy, purpose, accomplishment and healthy pleasure.
Build healthy cycles into your life. Strive to more closely observe and respect your body’s ultradian rhythms. Consciously design your day so that you intersperse energy-demanding tasks and events with experiences that help you replenish your emotional and spiritual reserves.
You may not be ready to incorporate all these suggestions at once. Trust your instincts about which ones are most essential to you. Once you’ve mastered one adjustment, you’ll find the others easier to integrate. By modeling your daily life in a way that respects your body’s natural intelligence, you’ll move beyond a reliance on external power sources – spinach or otherwise. Instead, you’ll tap into your internal energy sources. You’ll feel your vitality growing and your capacity increasing. Over time, you may even notice that your life’s distress calls are fewer and farther between, leaving you with even more high-octane energy for the things you value and enjoy most of all.
Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly. She lives in Connecticut.