By Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. for Next Avenue
In the commencement address he gave to graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, award-winning novelist David Foster Wallace talked about fish:
Two young fish are swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish nods at them and says: ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, ‘What the hell is water?’
That was Wallace’s example of how when something is always present in your life, you don’t notice it. Well, it’s the same for energy. Much like the water in Wallace’s parable, energy is something you take for granted — until you don’t have it. What’s more, you can’t get it, at least not in the traditional sense. Trying to do so is like trying to grasp water in your hand: It just slips through your fingers and splatters on the ground. However, if you cup your palm, water can sit in it, unperturbed.
Consider this: You don’t have to teach 2-year-olds ways to have more energy; that’s the way they come out of the box. So really, it’s not that we don’t have energy; it’s that we’ve created conditions — often by many years of bad lifestyle choices — that make it almost impossible for energy to show up.
After spending years constructing all kinds of roadblocks to that energy, now we wonder how to get it back. The answer is to remove the conditions that keep it from surfacing. Some of the ways to do that are common sense. Others require that we change some of our daily habits. None are out of reach of ordinary mortals.
- Get a good night’s sleep. It sounds like a platitude, but it is critically important. It’s not just about putting in seven or eight hours a night; it’s about remembering that your bed is not your office. Switch off the computer, the TV, the cellphone and the lights. Keep the room cool and comfortable. Calm yourself. With a good night’s sleep, you’ll awake refreshed and energetic.
- Include protein in every single meal and snack. There’s nothing more energizing, metabolism-boosting and brain-clearing than a high-protein meal. Protein also can make you stronger. In a recent study, healthy volunteers were overfed by the same number of calories. But the composition of their diets was different. As expected everyone gained weight. But people on the lowest protein diet also lost 2.2 pounds of muscle mass, thus essentially slowing their metabolic rates. Those in the normal- or high-protein groups gained muscle mass during the overeating period. Their weight went up, but their body composition improved. The body composition of the low-protein group actually worsened slightly. Although I personally prefer animal sources of protein, vegetable and grain sources can also work, although the foods that contain them are much higher in carbohydrates. And that brings us to step three.
- Cut back on carbohydrates. Kick the carbs — pasta, rice, cereals, breads, desserts, etc. — to kick-start your energy. That’s because carbs slow us down and sap energy by, among other things, interfering with the body’s ability to keep blood sugar on an even keel.
- Drink water. Even if you’re only 2 percent dehydrated, your physical performance and mental energy may be adversely affected. There’s not a single drop of scientific evidence for the old “eight glasses a day” advice, but it’s still a very good general guideline, even if it is based just on experience and not science. If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably should drink even more water. My guideline for weight loss has always been this: Take your target weight; divide by two; and drink that number of ounces a day. And when you lose those excess pounds, you will also feel more energetic.
- Get 10 minutes of sun on most days. In addition to providing vitamin D, the sun is a mood enhancer, and that can make it energizing. After all, seasonal affective disorder (episodes of depression that occur at a certain time of the year, usually during winter) is related, at least in part, to darker days with less light and sun.
- Check your thyroid. Low energy can be the result of an underperforming thyroid, and women over age 50 are especially at risk. Although there is some controversy about exactly which hormones should be measured to evaluate thyroid function (i.e., thyroid-stimulating hormone versus thyroxine, etc.) and how exactly to make the diagnosis, the fact remains that thyroid function is absolutely something to look at carefully if you’re feeling fatigued and run down.
- Identify food sensitivities. Undiscovered food sensitivities can be energy zappers. These are not the same as classical food allergies. Real food allergies affect less than 5 percent of the population, but food sensitivities are different — they happen because your body can’t handle a particular kind of food well. You may notice such symptoms as brain fog, tiredness, a bit of bloating, some gas or a headache. The symptoms are diffuse and varied and many people don’t associate them with the foods that cause them. This is compounded by the fact that many of these reactions are delayed by many hours, making it more difficult for you to pinpoint the culprit food. How do you discover which foods you might be sensitive to? One way is by doing a rotation diet. Remove a specific type of food from your diet for two weeks and see what happens. If everything’s the same, that food probably wasn’t the culprit. If a symptom disappears, that’s a clue! Start by eliminating wheat, cow’s milk products, sugar, corn and corn syrup, eggs, soy, and peanuts — what Dr. Elson Haas calls the sensitive seven. Those are responsible for the majority of food sensitivities. And off the record, most health practitioners who recommend this kind of rotation or elimination diet find that they get 90 percent of the results just by getting rid of wheat (or grains) and dairy.
- Eat dark chocolate. Eating one or two squares of dark chocolate (60 to 70 percent cocoa) can be good for your energy and, according to some recent studies, good for your heart as well. Since a bar of dark chocolate (not milk chocolate candy) is about 200 calories, a square or two is not a very high-calorie snack. And it’s not very sweet, so even if you love sugar, you’re unlikely to want to binge on very dark chocolate.
- Experiment with spices. Hot peppers and capsaicin — foods and spices that make you sweat a little bit when you eat them — can stimulate the metabolism a little and give you a bit of a boost. The evidence is anecdotal, but if you like spicy foods, experiment to see if certain ones make you feel more energetic.
- Do interval training. We’re all familiar with the paradox: you’re too tired to exercise, yet exercise actually gives you more energy. That said, it has to be the right kind of exercise. I’m partial to interval training, like sprinting … you go for a very high-intensity interval for, say 30 seconds, and alternate with a period of active rest, where you don’t sit down, but perhaps you walk at a normal pace for 20 seconds, then you go back up to the high-intensity rate.
- Drink “green” drinks. Drinks made of natural vegetable juices or prepackaged powdered mixes are a good alternative to sugary sports drinks. Green drinks are high in nutrients, low glycemic — so they help keep your blood sugar on an even keel — and they take the edge off your appetite. They’re also a good alternative to high-carb snacks that give you a sugar jolt followed by a crash.