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Of all the things we'd like more of Ã¢â‚¬”time, sleep, another finger-scoop of cake icing Ã¢â‚¬”the secret to boost energy, is at the top of most of our lists. For almost all of us, energy levels swirl down the day's drain as more hours pass. Slowly leaking. Until. We. Finally. Crash. Sometimes, we don't know what makes us tired, whether it's too little sleep, too little exercise, too much stress, a lack of sunlight, or just the evening news. But we do know many of the cures Ã¢â‚¬”and they come in the form of what you drink, eat, and pop. So here's a healthy eating guide to the major myths about energy-boosters, and what you can do to make sure you have energy to spare.
Myth: Sweet snacks give you a sugar high and then a sugar crash.
If you're sluggish at 4 p.m., conventional wisdom says you're hypoglycemic. Your blood sugar's low, and a handful of M&Ms will make those levels Ã¢â‚¬”and you Ã¢â‚¬”spike and then plunge. But that line of thinking has as much truth as the Loch Ness legend, without even a grainy photograph to back it up.
"There's no evidence to support the idea that midafternoon tiredness is caused by hypoglycemia, or that healthy people feel normal fluctuations in blood sugar," says Phillip Cryer, M.D., professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "The threshold for symptoms of low blood sugar is 50 to 55 milligrams (mg) of glucose per deciliter of blood, and it's very, very rare for a healthy person to get to those levels."
Rather than being low on blood sugar, you're low on serotonin Ã¢â‚¬”the brain chemical that makes you feel focused, attentive, and energetic, says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a researcher in women's health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Instead of the celery sticks: Bring back the carbohydrates. Carbs become glucose in your bloodstream, and as insulin goes to work on the glucose, it starts a chain of chemical events: An amino acid called tryptophan travels to the brain and converts to serotonin to keep your energy up. Dr. Wurtman goes against conventional wisdom by recommending snacks that are almost pure carbohydrate Ã¢â‚¬”which means the vending machine licorice or a small bag of pretzels isn't necessarily off-limits anymore.
Still, you'd be better off with a carb that gives you more nutritional bang for the buck Ã¢â‚¬”a piece of fruit or a couple of handfuls of fat-free popcorn will keep your serotonin levels up without doing the same for calorie counts. "You'll be more attentive to what you're doing and feel you can take on more tasks," Dr. Wurtman says. "It's not that you'll feel extremely energetic Ã¢â‚¬”you won't get that no matter what you eat. But you'll lose the desperate feeling of tiredness."
Myth: High-dose vitamins increase energy levels.
Stop by the vitamin store and you'll see lots of little bottles with this promise: "Increased Energy!" In reality, most of these supplements are high concentrations of B vitamins or iron. B vitamins help release energy from food; if you're deficient, you will feel tired.
"Very few of us are deficient in B vitamins Ã¢â‚¬”they're easy to get. No research supports the idea that high doses of Bs do you any good when it comes to energy," says Connie Diekman, R.D., and director of University Nutrition at Washington University. "If you're not deficient, adding the B vitamins won't do anything for you. Most of the B vitamins are water soluble, and your body takes what it needs and pees out the rest." Which means, given the high cost of some high-dose supplements, you're literally pissing your money away.
While iron carries oxygen through your blood, that doesn't mean that more iron equals more oxygen. "For most of us, the odds that ordinary afternoon tiredness is from iron deficiency are slim," Diekman says. "If you're deficient, you're tired throughout the day, you feel weak, and you're easily winded."
Those likely to be iron-deficient are 4 to 8 percent of premenopausal women and vegetarians, since iron is found in meat (although flour is fortified with iron, which helps plant-eaters stay nicely ironed). Because too much iron can be dangerous Ã¢â‚¬”it can elevate cholesterol Ã¢â‚¬”don't take iron supplements without seeing your doctor and getting tested.
Instead of overhyped supplements: To maintain levels vital for vitality, eat a balanced diet supplemented with an ordinary multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for B vitamins and iron. Nothing fancy required; both One-A-Day Women's and Centrum contain the right mix and amounts of these two nutrients.
Myth: Herb-fortified drinks are a sure-fire boost.
Here's a tip-off: If the ingredient list on the drink sounds more like species of lizards (taurine, ginseng, guarana, ginkgo biloba), it's not worth it.
"For most of these ingredients, there's no research to back up the claims," Diekman says. "That doesn't mean you can say conclusively that they don't work, but there just aren't enough high-quality studies to substantiate the claims." (Without studies, there's insufficient evidence for safety. We learned the hard way about ephedra.)
In reality, the boost you're getting from these beverages is the same you're getting from a Diet Coke or an intravenous coffee drip: caffeine. It works as an energy-booster by jamming up adenosine Ã¢â‚¬”a chemical that slows down nerve activity in your brain. The adenosine receptors bind to the caffeine instead, which means you accelerate instead of slowing down.
Instead of energy drinks: To keep your caffeine levels optimal throughout the day and your sugar (which most energy drinks have) in check, drink it at strategic times Ã¢â‚¬”when you arrive at work in the morning and when you hit the slump midday. James Wyatt, Ph.D., a researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, suggests you aim for about 25 to 50 mg per serving. (Curious to know how different drinks compare? So were we. See "Buzzworthy," above, for exactly how much caffeine your favorite delivers.) Dr. Wyatt warns that caffeine sensitivity varies Ã¢â‚¬”you'll know whether that's too much or not enough. If you've got a 2-cups-in-the-morning habit, though, it won't work so well; regular use can decrease sensitivity.
As a bonus, coffee drinking is also associated with decreased risk of Parkinson's disease and type II diabetes, and the flavonoids in tea may help fight heart disease and some cancers. Unless you spike them with sugar, cream, or flavored syrup, both drinks will fight fatigue without a caloric cost Ã¢â‚¬”it's free energy.