It’s 3pm and the huge pile of work on your desk seems unachievable, just as your body has decided to go into sleep mode, with energy levels hitting rock bottom. Sound familiar? If you get the low energy slump after lunch, there is often an easy explanation for what your body is playing at, and thankfully we know how to deal with this to ramp up our energy levels, keeping motivation and productivity high.
So what exactly is happening when we feel sluggish in the afternoon? Our energy levels are determined by a few varying factors, most importantly our blood sugar levels, which determines how much glucose is delivered to each cell in our body to keep them going, and our ability to process this glucose is determined by the function of the mitochondria in each cell, which like the engine of a car, help to use fuel (glucose) and convert this to energy. We therefore want to achieve a constant supply of glucose to cells, without fluctuations, and we need to optimise the function of the mitochondria.
Avoid a blood sugar roller coaster
Blood sugar imbalance is possibly the number one cause of afternoon energy dips, and often self inflicted, therefore is fortunately easy to avoid. The level of glucose in your blood is largely determined by how much carbohydrate you have consumed (including foods such as potatoes, bread and sugar). If you decide to go for the irresistible biscuits and sugary birthday cake in the office after lunch, these are possibly the worst culprits for affecting blood sugar levels. Not only are biscuits and cake very high in carbohydrates, they are also fast releasing as these processed foods require little effort to break down in the body. The fast release of glucose into the blood causes the body to release the hormone insulin which is responsible for regulating these levels. As the glucose levels may be unnaturally high after your cake, your insulin production will react the same way, by releasing high levels of insulin in overdrive. The result is that your blood sugar level may then dip to even lower than before you had the cake, leaving you feeling exhausted, heavy and tired.
“Opting for protein and fat rich foods with lunch is a great way to slow down the energy release from your meal.”
Carbohydrates are not always the enemy when it comes to energy levels, as a constant slow supply of glucose to our cells makes us feel good. Low glycaemic index (GI) foods (i.e. slow releasing) are therefore far more favoured by the body when it comes to stabilising our blood sugar levels (1). Low GI foods include whole grains when compared to refined grains. Foods containing fibre, in their natural state and foods containing protein and fat, generally have a lower GI. Opting for protein and fat rich foods with lunch is a great way to slow down the energy release from your meal.
Note that when following a very low carbohydrate diet, your body is clever in the fact that it will convert the fats you consume to ketones, which are then used by the body in replacement of carbohydrates, and your cells will still process the ketones to produce energy. Although it may take your body a while to properly adjust to following a low carbohydrate diet, this is a great way to stabilise blood sugar levels, therefore banishing the energy dips after lunch. Following a low carbohydrate diet has even shown to help diabetic individuals to improve their blood glucose control (2).
Chill out and relax
Stress can also contribute to imbalances in blood sugar levels as the hormone cortisol released when stressed encourages fat storage as opposed to energy being used for fuel quicker. Increased cortisol production can also lead to decreased insulin sensitivity (3) therefore encouraging fat storage, and possibly increasing risk of type 2 diabetes, and as a result is going to make us feel even more sluggish!
Being advised to relax may seem the opposite when you are trying to increase energy levels, but relaxation is a very important time for the body to rejuvenate. If you can manage to set aside some time each evening to let your body unwind for the day, this can actually help you to recharge for the next day. Find something that relaxes you, whether it is reading a book, having a bath or doing meditation, and try to incorporate this into your every day routine. If you are the kind of person who takes your job home with you mentally, i.e. if your work load is more than you can cope with and deadlines are racing through your mind when you are trying to relax in the evening, consider organising your to do lists, allowing you to mentally put this out of your mind when you are at home.
To fast or to graze?
You may have seen contradictory advice on how to maintain energy levels by eating either frequently throughout the day, or by fasting. Eating small regular meals throughout the day may certainly help to keep your blood sugar levels more constant (as long as snacks aren’t sugary biscuits!) and eating breakfast has been shown to help control blood sugar levels; (4) however, if we take this advice to the extreme by grazing constantly, this is actually quite hard work for the digestive system to deal with. We are physiologically quite dissimilar to a grazing sheep, as our stomachs simply aren’t designed to have a constant flow of foods. Every time we eat, this requires gastric juices to be released from the stomach lining, the liver to release bile and the pancreas to release digestive enzymes. Working these organs constantly throughout the day may eventually take its own toll on our energy levels if we are not careful.
“Grazing constantly is hard work for the digestive system to deal with… our stomachs simply aren’t designed to have a constant flow of foods and working the digestive organs throughout the day can take its toll on our energy levels.”
The other extreme is to fast. Some believe in fasting for long periods of time, whether it is for hours or days, although this method for improving energy levels in the afternoon is yet to be proven as successful. Unless you are a very patient, well controlled and determined individual who is searching for a challenge, fasting for the majority of us only leaves us feeling irritable and jealous of everyone around us eating.
Eating three main meals and snacking once or twice a day seems to work best for most people when it comes to regulating energy levels, and of course this is very easy to fit in socially, too. This doesn’t work for everyone, however, so listen to your own body’s needs, and if you are a body builder, you may indeed need six main meals a day.
Caffeine and blood sugar
So surely a coffee is good for perking you up in the afternoon, right? Well, caffeine does, of course, stimulate, and in the short term it increases energy, alertness and concentration; (5) however, caffeine also causes an insulin response in the body and has been shown to disrupt insulin sensitivity, (6) the hormone required to control blood glucose levels. Caffeine intake is also associated with lower blood glucose levels two hours after consuming, (7) possibly explaining why a couple of hours after drinking a coffee, you feel like you need another to obtain the same level of energy.
To clarify, tea and coffee really aren’t bad for us, and they actually contain huge amounts of health-beneficial antioxidants. Overall, caffeine in moderation is fine, however an excess may lead to a feeling of reliance due to blood glucose imbalances. To minimise the delayed blood glucose lowering effects of coffee, try adding a teaspoon of coconut oil blended into your coffee in the afternoon for a slower energy release, and perhaps even consider having this with a high protein snack such as a handful of nuts or a small pot of Greek yoghurt.
Go for a walk
Simply moving to get your blood pumping around your body can make a world of difference. You don’t have to go for a marathon at lunchtime – just a 15 minute stroll would help. Physical activity actually increases our available energy (8) and also possibly helps us to feel more motivated by releasing brain chemicals called endorphins. To get into a habit of walking more, make a few easy changes such as walking upstairs instead of using escalators, changing your commute to work to include a short walk, or taking a short walk at lunchtime to your favourite cafe.
Supplements for an extra energy boost
To really ramp up our energy levels and to support our bodies as much as possible in the energy production processes, some of us may need a helping hand from supplements. If you feel that you are doing everything right, but your energy levels are still low, or if your energy levels have dropped as you are getting older, you may benefit from a ubiquinol supplement.
Ubiquinol is the active antioxidant form of CoQ10 and it is required in every cell in the body by the mitochondria (the cells’ engines) to produce energy. The majority of our ubiquinol is produced in the liver; as production diminishes with age, levels begin to decline and, along with this, our energy levels also start to plummet. A small amount of ubiquinol can be obtained by food, found mostly in organ meat, although levels obtained from dietary sources are not considered high enough to have a significant effect on energy levels.
In extreme cases of mitochondrial dysfunction, a CoQ10 deficiency is considered to play a role in the development of chronic fatigue symptoms, (9) for which cases ubiquinol supplementation may be very effective.
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(2) Guldbrand H, Dizdar B, Bunjaku B, Lindstrom T, Bachrach-Lindstrom M, Fredrikson M, et al. In type 2 diabetes, randomisation to advice to follow a low-carbohydrate diet transiently improves glycaemic control compared with advice to follow a low-fat diet producing a similar weight loss. Diabetologia 2012 Aug;55(8):2118-27.
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(5) Glade MJ. Caffeine-Not just a stimulant. Nutrition 2010 Oct;26(10):932-8.
(6) Beaudoin MS, Allen B, Mazzetti G, Sullivan PJ, Graham TE. Caffeine ingestion impairs insulin sensitivity in a dose-dependent manner in both men and women. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2013 Feb;38(2):140-7.
(7) Loopstra-Masters RC, Liese AD, Haffner SM, Wagenknecht LE, Hanley AJ. Associations between the intake of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee and measures of insulin sensitivity and beta cell function. Diabetologia 2011 Feb;54(2):320-8.
(8) Schrager MA, Schrack JA, Simonsick EM, Ferrucci L. Association between energy availability and physical activity in older adults. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2014 Oct;93(10):876-83.
(9) Maes M, Mihaylova I, Kubera M, Uytterhoeven M, Vrydags N, Bosmans E. Coenzyme Q10 deficiency in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is related to fatigue, autonomic and neurocognitive symptoms and is another risk factor explaining the early mortality in ME/CFS due to cardiovascular disorder. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2009;30(4):470-6.