Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Healthy ways to boost your energy levels

These easy-to-adopt habits will keep the crash at bay

Yawn! Does waking up in the morning leave you feeling worn out? Afternoons have you pining for your pillow? No problem – that’s what caffeine is for!

That’s wrong, of course. There’s no need to completely abandon socially acceptable stimulants, but they shouldn’t be the crutch we use to hobble through hectic days.

Kate Andrews, chair of the Personal Fitness Trainer program, knows that staying energized all day is “a tricky concept, and one that we tend to try to fix with [a] quick solution.” She’s not about to give up her coffee, but she couples it with healthier approaches to staying alert, productive and even-keeled.

“It has to be balanced. You can’t just use one thing.”

We asked Andrews and Nick Creelman, NAIT’s registered dietitian, what practices pair well with caffeine when faced with the energy-sapping pressures of modern life.

How and what to eat

whole foods“A big key is trying to limit the amount of sugar and processed foods you eat during the day,” says Andrews. If you load up on simple carbohydrates that flood the bloodstream with sugar – muffins, breads, cookies and the like – “you’ll find yourself dragging in the afternoon.”

Insulin is the reason. The hormone triggers cells to take glucose, a simple sugar, out of the bloodstream and either use it or store it.

Don’t miss out

Never skip a meal, says Creelman. If you do, “You’re more likely to overeat later in the day. When you’re in that starvation mode, it’s very easy to eat chips or cookies for a quick boost of energy.”

Twenty to 40 minutes later, you’ll crash, and the process will repeat.

“If you eat a carb-heavy meal, you’re going to have a lot more insulin [released] than usual,” says Creelman. The result is a rapid uptake that leads to that “sugar crash” feeling. Then you need to eat again.

“It goes in a vicious cycle.”

The healthy alternative is whole foods. These complex carbohydrates are harder to break into simple sugars, which are then released more slowly into the bloodstream, preventing that insulin flood. Eat more whole grains (such as oats, quinoa and brown rice), says Creelman, along with high-fibre foods (nuts, seeds, legumes, as well as fruits and vegetables) that will also help slow the sugar rush.

Protein, too, can even out the ebb and flow of energy by keeping you feeling full longer. Andrews boils eggs for the week for healthy snacks between meetings and classes on busy days. She’ll have two a day, minimum.

Drink a lot of water

glass of water first thing in the morning

The first thing Andrews does after waking up is drink a glass of water to rehydrate the body. This ensures that it can properly carry out myriad, vital metabolic processes. “That will help clear some of that fog right away.”

After that, she’ll have a glass every couple of hours. Between that and what’s in her fruits and vegetables, Andrews meets the recommendation of about two litres of water a day.

While she likes coffee within healthy limits (under four cups; black, no calorie-rich cream or sugar), she knows that its impact on energy is limited. So does Creelman. “The problem with coffee, and energy drinks, is that they don’t provide prolonged energy,” he says.

The effect of energy drinks is further complicated by often-high sugar content and other additives, such as guarana, which contains caffeine in addition to the amount indicated on the can, as well as compounds that mimic the stimulant’s effects.

“It’s so hard to say how that will affect your body,” says Andrews. “I’m just not a fan of energy drinks.”

Exercise regularly

exercise to maintain energy levels

Before our interview, Andrews took a brisk 10-minute walk outdoors. Rather than throwing back an espresso, she chose movement as her boost. This gets a little adrenaline flowing, which opens blood vessels and increases the heart rate.

“We were built to move.”

“We were built to move,” she says, adding that we should try for about 30 minutes of moderate activity each day. You don’t have to do it all at once – even three 10-minute bouts will improve your health and energy levels.

Rest and de-stress

meditating woman

Exercise reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that induces stress, which is great if you’re reacting to a crisis but terrible if you want to manage things like anxiety, depression and inflammation.

Eating for mental health

Brain food is real, says Creelman. It tends to contain micronutrients such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Both have a positive impact on anxiety and depression, which in turn can affect energy levels.

“If our brain health is looked after, we tend to have more energy and feel more upbeat,” says Creelman.

For antioxidants, he recommends eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and pulses. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in flax and hemp seed, as well as in fatty fish such as haddock, cod and tilapia.

“Research supports that the nutrients work better in the food than in the pill form,” Creelman adds.

Not exercising works, too, Andrews adds. “I’m a big advocate for meditation and mindfulness practices.” Studies have shown that such activities lower cortisol in blood serum, thereby reducing stress and related conditions. After a shower, Andrews devotes 20 minutes to clearing her mind before letting the day pack it full again.

The other risk of elevated cortisol levels is that, like a late-day coffee, it can interfere with sleep. Every night, “You should get at least seven hours,” says Andrews.

Be patient – and willing to experiment

Unlike shocking the system with caffeine or hard-to-pronounce ingredients in energy drinks, boosting energy levels naturally can take time. Try not to be disappointed if you don’t see instant results.

“I’ve been concentrating on good nutrition for years, and it’s only the last couple where I’ve gotten it to where I can sustain energy and feel good,” says Andrews, who’s now 40.

Even then, the crash still comes now and then. Andrews tries to be aware of the factors that contribute to her energy. That way, if she slows down one day, she can adjust for the next.

“Rarely are we absolutely perfect at everything, but if you can maintain some of [those factors], it will help prepare you for when things get crazy and busy.”confident college student

When’s nap time?

“What time of day do you feel most tired?” asks Creelman. Once you know when the tank typically runs dry, you can plan ahead.

Twenty or 30 minutes before that, go for a walk, have a glass of water, and make sure that you’ve eaten well. That afternoon cookie may look tempting once you hit the home stretch, but it may not be the thing that actually gets you there.

“If you have a lean protein and any kind of high-fibre option for a snack, it’s going to keep your blood sugar and energy more stable.”


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