So many people that come to work with me struggle with low energy, despite looking like the image of health on the outside for some.
They are often told by their doctors that they look perfectly healthy, everything is great, maybe just depressed?
From a disease perspective I get it. No disease there. But from a health perspective there can be a lot going on and a lot to work with to turn the dial. When we consider that there is a spectrum of health, not just Diseased or Healthy, we find there is quite a bit we can do with food and lifestyle to turn the dial towards better health, function, and greater energy.
One of my missions is to fill the gap between disease and perfect health, empowering people learn about what is going on in their body and what they can do to optimize how they function not matter where they are on the spectrum of health.
Nothing woo woo here, just systems biology coupled with modifiable lifestyle choices to improve how we feel and function.
When we look at how energy is made and what impacts it, there are 4 areas that stick out to me, as a functional nutritionist, where food and lifestyle can make a difference even for people already eating diverse whole foods.
- Blood sugar highs and lows
- Thyroid health and how the system is functioning
- Mitochondria and the nutrients needed to make energy (not just calories)
- The amount of Stress we are under, how we process that stress, and how our adrenals and HPA axis (hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis) are handling it
It is almost painful to omit DIGESTION from this list but for the sake of not beating a dead horse I will leave it out of the top 4 😉 . Of course eating enough food, sleeping, and moving regularly help here too. I wanted to address things people are not always thinking about.
1. Blood Sugar Regulation
Optimizing blood sugar is important for all of us, not just diabetics. So many of the people I work with are shocked how much this is impacting their energy on a day to day basis. I was even shocked when I tuned in to my blood sugar. Blood sugar is impacted by what we eat, when we eat, how much stress we have in our lives, how we move our body, how well we sleep, our estrogen, and more. Our blood sugar levels naturally go up and down during the day but we want hills, not mountains. What goes up will come down and often crashing down hard bringing with it symptoms of blood sugar imbalance such as: afternoon fatigue, sleepiness, cravings, anxiety, waking up in the middle of the night, headaches, irritability, and more. If you want to optimize your energy it is essential to optimize your blood sugar. Retraining your body to burn fat is a great way to do this as is balancing fat/fiber/protein at every meal and snack. Because blood sugar is so important for energy, sleep, and hormone balance we work on this in our 6 week Women’s Hormone Club, at the 10 week Foundations of Health and I address this with my one on one clients. How balanced is your blood sugar? Do you have any symptoms indicating you could use some work here? Tuning into your ups and downs during the day can be incredibly insightful to optimizing blood sugar and feeling more balanced energy.
One of my favorite ways to help balance blood sugar is getting enough protein for breakfast. I find most people miss this chance to manage blood sugar in a way that trickles down to the rest of the day.
2. Thyroid Health
Our thyroid impacts our metabolism and how we use protein, carbs, and fat to make energy, it impacts our oxygen consumption, our sodium/potassium regulation, cardiovascular function, red blood cells, digestion, and is used by every cell in our body. 1, 2. If we do not have enough thyroid hormone or cannot properly use our thyroid hormone our entire body will slow down and fatigue is a common symptom. Our thyroid depends on clear communication between our brain and our thyroid (the HPT axis), it depends on having the proper nutrients to make thyroid hormones (which also includes how well we are digesting and absorbing those nutrients), on our microbiome to convert thyroid hormone to a usable form, if we have antibodies to our thyroid gland or antibodies to certain thyroid enzymes, and on our cell’s ability to receive and use thyroid hormone 3. If any part of the system is not functioning optimally, even if there is not a diagnosable disease to treat, or even if someone is taking thyroid hormone but not utilizing it well, energy will be impacted. Getting a clear idea of thyroid function and making sure your thyroid has what it needs to function is an important step to optimize energy and one that affects women considerably more than men. Even if your TSH looks perfect there could be more at play. Food and lifestyle are key players in the thyroid system (HPT) and getting a full thyroid panel is key if there are energy issues or any signs of a slow down in the body.
Some of my favorite thyroid supportive foods include- brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, kelp, eggs, and greens.
3. Mitochondria and the Nutrients Needed to Produce Energy
Our mitochondria are where energy is made in our body. We not only need fat, carbohydrates, and oxygen to make energy but we also depend on many other factors to keep the system pumping out ATP, the energy currency in our body. If we do not have enough of any of the following factors, energy production will be decreased, leaving us with less energy. This includes iron to help move oxygen from our lungs to our mitochondria, B vitamins to help the mitochondria convert carbs/fat/protein into energy, and all 20 amino acids needed for coenzymes throughout the process. In the case of these three we depend not only on getting enough from our diet but also on digesting and absorbing them properly. If we do not have enough stomach acid or have any issues with the villi in our small intestine or have a lack of digestive enzymes or bile, we might have a hard time absorbing and digesting these critical nutrients even if we are consuming them. We also need plenty of antioxidants to maintain the integrity of the mitochondria, we need sufficient sulfur, CoQ10, Carnitine, N-acetyl cysteine, vitamin D, magnesium, fatty acids, and alpha lipoic acid for energy production, all coming from the foods we are or are not eating and how we are breaking them down. 4 5 6 Even heavy metals, mold, and toxins can impact our mitochondria 11. Do your mitochondria have what they need to function optimally? Are you sure?
4. Stress and how we are managing it
Every time we are faced with a stressor in life, either emotional, physical, nutritional, environmental, immune wise, from blood sugar swings, etc our hpa axis responds by releasing cortisol from the adrenal glands so our body is prepped to react. This is a great thing as we need cortisol for many reasons, unless is it kept in ‘ON’ mode for too long that is. Our brain does not differentiate if we are being chased by a tiger, are stressed about bills, are up late watching a suspenseful thriller, have a nutrient deficiency, are overtraining, have a chronic infection, mold exposure, or any other stress we might be facing. It is all stress on the body and is a bit of a mismatch between how we evolved and our current environment. Some stress is a good thing (hormesis) but too much stress can negatively impact the HPA axis or hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis 7 8. We are meant to handle stress but not a never ending onslaught of stressors 10 (allostatic load). In this case we might see dysregulated cortisol which can manifest as low energy in the morning (despite getting plenty of sleep) and low energy throughout the day, among other things signs of HPA axis dysregulation 8 9. Although ‘adrenal fatigue’ is outdated and not recognized as science based condition (the adrenals are not fatigued instead cortisol is regulated by the brain), hpa axis dysregulation is very real and can be a leading contributor to feeling low energy and fatigue 10. Removing what stressors we can and learning to process our emotional stress better are two important components to supporting the HPA axis and optimizing our energy during the day. Sometimes we need to do a little digging to figure out what is causing our stress response to be turned on chronically.
A couple of favorite herbs/foods to support stress management include sipping lemon balm tea, and taking Adaptogens like Reishi, Rhodiola, Maca and Ashwanganda.
If you are feeling less energy than normal there are ways to use food and lifestyle to support your body and increase your energy (Of course ruling out any serious condition with your physician is an important step).
Tracking is a great way to start tuning in to what is going on in your body. Start noticing and writing down when you feel good, when you feel low, what you are eating, your lifestyle choices during those times, known stressors, mood, poop, sleep, how much you are resting, etc. There are labs and tests that can help you dig deeper too, such as nutritional panels, a functional thyroid panel, serum labs such as iron/ferritin/vitamin D/magnesium, dried urine and salivary hormone tests, blood sugar monitoring, organic acids tests, and more. Optimizing digestions is always important to make sure you are able to use the nutrients you are eating. Stay curious and reach out to a trusted wellness professional for help.
Digging deeper with functional labs can be extremely helpful if things feel off in your body. When we look at functional labs we are looking for optimal function instead of just for disease. Test don’t guess! Check out functional labs I often use for energy issues.
Some of my favorite functional booster foods to support optimal energy include
- liver (supplement if you don’t want to eat organ meat)
- maca powder
- sprouts (broccoli, alfalfa, mung, etc)
- bee pollen, royal jelly, and honey
- beet juice
- nuts and seeds
- sweet potatoes
- mct oil
- green tea
- sea vegetables
What do you do to optimize your energy?
This is intended to serve as education regarding food and lifestyle to support health. It is not meant to treat or diagnose any health condition. Please consult your physician with any health issues.
Check out my blog and video on MAPPING ENDURANCE through a functional lens. I list my favorite trail foods as well as functional labs relevant to energy there too!
- 1 Thryoid- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500006/
- 2 Thyroid- https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/neck-organs#3
- 3 Thyroid- Romm, Dr. Aviva https://avivaromm.com/heal-your-thyroid-get-out-of-survival-mode/
- 4 Mitochondria- Dr. Jeffery Bland https://terrywahls.com/mitochondria-an-owners-manual-by-dr-bland/
- 5 Mitochondria- Dr. Terry Whals – Minding your mitochondria
- 6 Mitochondria- PMID: 23168274
- 7 Stress and HPA axis- PMID: 33340273
- 8 HPA dystregulation, Kresser, Chris. https://kresserinstitute.com/adrenal-fatigue-hpa-axis-dysregulation/
- 9 Precision Analytical Cortisol Tutorial
- 10 Romm, Dr Aviva – Is Adrenal Fatigue a Real Thing?
- 11 Mitochondria Pubmed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21146384/
Janel Ferrin Anderson FNLP NC DNM
Janel works with people one and one and in group settings out of her office in Truckee/Tahoe. She helps people better understand what is going on in their body and explores with them how to use food and lifestyle to optimize health. Janel is a board certified nutrition consultant, a certified functional nutrition and lifestyle practitioner and has her doctorate in natural medicine. She is endlessly interested in WHY things function the way they do.
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