If a late night at the office has you reaching for a sugary treat to stay alert, a new study might make you reconsider your approach. Research published in the journal Neuron in November 2011 suggests that it is protein, not sugar or a caloric infusion, that stimulates the cells we rely on to help us fend off fatigue.
The study looked at the effect of a variety of nutrients on orexin cells, which secrete stimulants in the brain that cause us to expend energy and stay awake. Scientists found that the number of nerve impulses generated by orexin cells were increased by the intake of amino acids (building blocks of protein) similar to those found in egg whites. Glucose, a sugar, blocked these impulses. (Caffeine was not investigated in the study.)
According to lead researcher Denis Burdakov, PhD, a pharmacology professor at the University of Cambridge, the research suggests that the type of nutrients we ingest can have a big impact not just on our health and weight, but also on our day-to-day energy rhythms and mental alertness.
“The brain’s sleep and nutrition centers are not just ‘calorie meters,’” he says. “They are influenced, instead, by the balance of different nutrients in the diet.”
So the next time you need to power through a long workday, avoid sugar-laden snacks in favor of protein-rich foods.