The recent incident banning energy drinks at the University of New Hampshire and subsequent reversal of that ban should be society's wake up call. This incident is an example of the energy drink epidemic. The fact that our young people are looking for more energy, those who should inherently have enough due simply to their age, tells me we need to be looking at the bigger picture. What are we not eating that would normally fuel our bodies and fill this energy void? Why do we feel the need to run full speed 24/7, to work more and live less?
Historical Use of Stimulants
Today's college students, along with the rest of us, want the same "buzz" and alert feeling that man has sought for thousands of years. Chewing on raw sugar cane is one example of a historical stimulant, as is ginseng and betel nuts. Man has used these for millenia. Betel nut is still popular in Asia, despite the possible risks of oral cancer. Ginseng, on the other hand, is one of the most popular stimulants worldwide with tremendous health benefits. However, the most common stimulant man has used is found in tea, cocoa beans, and of course, the coffee bean. We know it as caffeine. Man has been using caffeine and other natural herbal stimulants for thousands of years for their alert, energy enhancing qualities.
Today's society is demanding more of us at younger ages, and the stress to rise to the challenge is fueling an epidemic of fatigue, exhaustion and insomnia. Caffeine shots and sugary drinks are easy substitutes that keep us going. Unfortunately, they can fuel a vicious cycle of fatigue and insomnia. However, there are benefits to drinking a moderate amount of caffeine each day.
Unfortunately, when mixed with sugar and ingested in high doses, caffeine is highly addicting and can induce hypokalemia (abnormally low serum potassium). Most of us can relate to the adverse effects after too many cups of coffee. Side effects vary but include, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), palpitations, insomnia, restlessness, nervousness, tremor, headache, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and diuresis (increased urination). (1)
Food is Fuel
Many of us survive day to day on the SAD diet, commonly known as the Standard American Diet. This diet lacks essential nutrients like nitric oxide, magnesium, copper, live enzymes and probiotics, all which contribute to building our mitochondria and providing the ATP we need to make it through an average day.
In making up for this lack of necessary nutrients, we choose high fat and high sugar foods in the forms of energy bars and artificially packed vitamin drinks. It seems most of us can't get through the day without at least one of these substitutes. Can you think of a day you had no sugar, no caffeine and nothing artificial? These so-called energy foods seem cheaper, faster and easier. This mentality has fueled the energy drink and energy food market which has exploded in a few short years.
More drinks packed with artificial vitamins is not necessarily the answer. I just think we should be finding them in our foods. When we choose artificial sources, our energy needs go unmet and this depletion exacerbates our body's true need for real nutrients. Without a doubt, the average person living in the 21st century still needs at least 1000-1500 calories of energy a day to survive. It is more cost efficient and intelligent to find these calories in natural sources to fuel our bodies efficiently and consistently. Our traditional caveman diet of legumes, meats, vegetables, fruit and nuts is what our cells crave.
The dangers of a nutritionally deficient, high sugar diet are very real. Nutrition plays the key role in the prevention of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and, what you may not know, adrenal fatigue. Drinking high doses of caffeine and sugar has a very common adverse effect: The body gets a spurt of energy and then crashes. Our cells go into an immediate homeostasis reaction and response mode. The pancreas is alerted to secret insulin to handle the onslaught of sugar.
According to toxipedia.com, "When the caffeine reaches the brain, it increases the secretion of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with the so-called fight or flight stress response. The rise in norepinephrine levels and the increased activity of the neurons, or nerve cells, in many other areas of the brain helps to explain why the symptoms of caffeine intoxication resemble the symptoms of a panic attack." (1)
The Answer is the Right Fuel
Our bodies have genetic predisposed needs, and we need to be more aware of them. We don't think twice about our need for oxygen. Yet, we hardly ever think about what our mitochondria really need. We just know we are hungry, and we often eat without any intelligent thoughts. Real food is the right fuel.
When we eat intelligently, we can eliminate diseases that plague our society. Low energy is also known as fatigue. When this is a daily occurrence we call this disease chronic fatigue. Dis-ease, or "disease," is defined as away from comfort. (In latin the prefix "dis" means away or apart, ease is defined as "a state of comfort.") Disease is the body not in a state of homeostasis or comfort. Fueling the body with proper nutrients eliminates the need for quick energy shots of caffeine and sugar, and repairs the state of dis-ease.
Eat and Drink Nutrient Rich "Fast Food"
1. A good rule of thumb is to eat 50 percent raw or uncooked food. Remember the saying, "we are what we eat." My favorite nutrient rich, raw fast food choices are avocados, apples, berries, all kinds of nuts, and just about any vegetable. These foods should be ready to grab and go in every kitchen. Your cells will thank you with sustained, home grown energy.
2. Protein is a must. At least 20 percent of our calories each day should be protein sources. Protein powders can be a quick healthy option. Today more choices are available such as soy protein, hemp protein, rice and pea protein, or combinations of these. Protein powders are a great fast food. At the afternoon energy low point, a scoop of high quality protein powder in a cup of organic almond, rice or soy milk is faster and better than a candy bar, donut or sugary caffeinated drink. You can add spirulina powder and you've got a nutrient rich five hour energy drink that feeds every cell of your body.
3. Use adaptogenic herbs; they are power houses of stored energy. Such herbs include ginseng, goji berries, codonopsis, rhodeola and cordyceps. These herbs have been used for thousands of years to increase man's endurance. Find a high quality manufacturer and your money is well spent. You'll find the energy derived from these types of botanicals are a hundred times more potent than caffeine, sugar or processed foods. Lest we forget Hippocrates, the father of medicine, "Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food."
4. Clean water. I can't say enough about this one. Our bodies are approximately 60-70 percent H2O so don't take it for granted, drink up. Dehydration does reduce your body's ability to manufacture ATP, our cells energy. Coconut water is a great substitute.I prefer drinking it for fast energy.
5. It may sound old fashioned, but falling asleep before 11 p.m. is the best natural energy booster to feeling fresh and alert all day. A 15 to 20 minute power nap in the afternoon is another great way to stay caffeine and sugar free.
Certainly, there are many more great natural energy sources to fuel our bodies. What are some of your favorite foods for energy?
Novak K, ed. Drug Facts and Comparisons. St. Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2005.
Engebretsen KM, Harris CR. Caffeine and Related Nonprescription Sympathomimetics. In: Ford MD, Delaney KA, Ling LJ, Erickson T, eds. Clinical Toxicology. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders; 2001:310-315.