Energy levels can be a tricky thing to evaluate. After all, the only thing you have to go on is your own subjective feeling. It’s easy to chalk it up to poor sleep and fall back on one too many cups of coffee to make you feel more alert.
However, there is actually a scientific explanation for that feeling of low energy, and it isn’t always linked to sleep as people tend to think. To understand where it comes from, we have to get down to a cellular level.
What Is ATP?
ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is the energy currency of the body. When you eat, you get the fuel your body needs to function – carbohydrates and fats. However, these carbs and fats are not in a form that is easy to use on a cellular level. To be able to use it, the cells first need to convert it into energy.
The energy production process takes place in a part of the cell called the mitochondria. The mitochondria break down glucose using oxygen and then turn it into energy using protein complexes called the mitochondrial electron transport chain.
The chemical bonds of ATP molecules store energy, and all the cell needs to do to access it, is to break those bonds. ATP is used to fuel all of the metabolic reactions and processes that happen in the cell. Varieties of ribose, a five-carbon sugar that is a part of ATP, are even used to form the DNA and RNA in the cells.
Mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to a feeling of sapped energy. In that sense, the subjective feeling of energy levels can actually be an indicator of our mitochondrial health.
Factors That Lower ATP levels
The body is a finely tuned instrument and things that happen on a macro level influence the things that happen on a micro level. Energy levels drop when the quality of the mitochondrial function drops. This can happen for a number of reasons.
The mitochondria are enveloped by two membranes that control what comes in and out of different parts of the mitochondria. The inner membrane also plays a role in the energy-making process. When these membranes get damaged or lose their functions – for instance when they let molecules into the mitochondria that shouldn’t be there or release molecules that should, that leads to problems.
Another common cause of mitochondrial dysfunction is reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS, also known as free radicals, are volatile particles that are made during the energy production process.
Finally, the mitochondria need certain chemicals to function properly. Crucially, they need oxygen they can burn in order to make ATP. Proteins make up the mitochondrial transport chain, and some fatty acids also play a crucial role. Other compounds, like certain co-enzymes or carnitine, are also important.
If any of these factors is out of balance, there is a risk of weakened mitochondrial function, and, subsequently, low energy.
What Is Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is cell damage caused by ROS. Even the best functioning mitochondria will create a certain amount of free radicals during the citric acid cycle. The problems arise when the free radicals outweigh the number of antioxidants in a cell.
Antioxidants are beneficial compounds that are able to neutralize free radicals. They do so in several ways: they can prevent them from forming in the first place, they can hunt already existing free radicals, or they can trigger their decomposition.
If this balance gets disrupted and there are too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants to neutralize them, that leads to oxidative stress. This condition can result in cell damage, breakdown or even cell death.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your ATP Production
Among other lifestyle factors, stress can have a detrimental effect on your ATP, especially if it is constant and long-term. It’s not news that psychological stress affects the body. However, the exact correlation between stress and changes in the mitochondria is only just emerging.
When a person is under stress, their mitochondria release a signal to the body to adapt to the circumstances. Scientific evidence suggests that when affected by stress, the mitochondria also make permanent changes to the cell and the molecules in it. Basically, this means that the stress gets “written down” in the cells in the form of damage and mutations.
This damage decreases mitochondrial activity, and that can affect any system in the body, including the central nervous system, the endocrine system, or the GI tract. Permanent mutations can even be passed on. Some chronic mitochondrial diseases include Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Furthermore, a scientist called Carmen Sandi recently discovered previously unknown connections between mental health, brain health, and mitochondria. She proposes that there is a link between conditions like anxiety and depression and low levels of ATP.
Research shows that animals under stress produce less ATP. This can hinder many metabolic processes such as cell division. An impaired process of cell division will result in fewer mitochondria and in turn, have a negative effect on brain function.
Why Supplements Are Not a Quick Fix
Supplementation is a go-to solution for many people. It’s a relatively easy way to fix almost any health condition imaginable. Who hasn’t reached for a vitamin C pill when they have a cold?
However, it’s important to be cautious with supplements.
Their first drawback is that there is very little evidence that they are actually useful. Extensive research funded by the US National Institute of Health has found no influence of supplementation on mortality rates among thousands of people. The same nutrients, when obtained from natural sources, like food, did prove effective.
Another reason to cut back on supplements is that, even when they are natural, supplements can actually be harmful. Around 23,000 people in the US each year have to visit the ER due to harmful effects from supplements such as vitamins or amino acid micronutrients.
Regulate Your Weight and Blood Sugar for Better Energy Levels
Elevated blood sugar can lead to many health problems, the most notable of which is diabetes.
The modern diet too often relies on foods with empty calories. These foods have a high caloric value, but lack the micronutrients the body needs. A lot of these foods are high in unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and artificial sweeteners. The result of such an unhealthy diet is often a total body weight which is much higher than it should be.
This spells trouble, because there is an established link between obesity and chronic inflammation. The constant inflammation increases the production of free radicals in the mitochondria and causes oxidative damage.
Furthermore, an unbalanced diet can alter the bacteria in the gut and negatively impact the immune system, leading to issues such as food sensitivity, allergies, and GI tract infections.
Finally, a high-sugar diet can cause insulin resistance. Impaired insulin sensitivity is a risk factor for diabetes. In simple terms, it happens when cells in the body don’t respond to insulin and are unable to take the glucose from the blood flow which is necessary to produce ATP.
Impaired insulin sensitivity is strongly linked with a lower mitochondrial count and impaired mitochondrial function.
A Healthy Diet to Give You More Energy
Although modern diet is usually high in calories, it is unlikely to provide a person with enough energy. In fact, to function optimally and maintain high energy levels, the mitochondria don’t need a carb-rich diet at all.
Fasting, a chronic caloric restriction, and the ketogenic diet have all proved to be beneficial for mitochondrial health and ATP levels. Fasting and a lower calorie count slow down aging and promote longevity. A ketogenic diet, which relies on other nutrients much more than it does on carbohydrates, boosts numbers of mitochondria and ATP in brain cells.
Even if these diets are not right for you, try to make nutrient rich foods the basis of your diet. Here are some nutrients that you should add to your diet if you want to support your ATP.
Among amino acid lysine is the one to look out for. It’s essential for health, but the body can only get it from food, and is not able to produce it on its own. You can find lysine in protein-rich foods such as eggs and tofu.
It’s impossible to make ATP without fatty acids. Good sources include olive oil, walnuts and avocados.
Carnitine transports the acids needed for the ATP making process. Red meat is full of it.
Antioxidants are the cell’s natural defense against oxidative damage. The most notable antioxidants are vitamin C and vitamin E, as well as glutathione, the enzyme responsible for maintaining cell balance and repairing the damage done by ROS.
Fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in antioxidants.
The Health Benefits of Exercise for Energy Levels
Exercise affects your energy levels by way of a very simple mechanism. When the body makes ATP, the main ingredients are oxygen and glucose. Physical activity provides increased amounts of oxygen for this process.
Research shows that aerobic physical activity, and especially high intensity interval training also supports the cells in making proteins necessary to synthesize ATP. The results of one study discovered an increase in mitochondrial capacity increases by a staggering 49 percent, and almost 69 percent in older volunteers. This significantly slowed down cellular aging in the participants.
Turn to Nature to Improve Mitochondrial Function
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku is the best example of how spending time in nature can support your overall well-being and increase your energy levels. The term literally translates to forest bathing. It’s not about actual bathing – it simply refers to the practice of immersing oneself in nature, and spending time in the forest. The effects of the fresh air as well as the almost meditative mental state are measurable and proven. This practice has a positive effect on metabolic disorders, increases the amount of oxygen cells get, and lowers oxidative stress.
Get Enough Rest
The link between sleep deprivation and mitochondrial function is still being researched, but one thing is clear so far- it exists.
It seems that it is the metabolic processes that make ATP follow circadian rhythms. When you don’t respect these natural rhythms, the processes in the body fail to function as well as they should.
For that reason, poor sleep hygiene causes insufficient energy levels, impaired brain function, brain fog, and mental fatigue.
Red light therapy is an excellent way to tune into your natural circadian rhythm.
Cut Toxins Out of Your Life
The body is actually very good at protecting itself from toxins and removing them. The liver and the kidneys are the power players in these metabolic processes. However, sometimes the input of toxins is too great, and they accumulate over time.
Exposure to environmental toxins is one of the biggest threats to public health today. It can disrupt the endocrine system, cause hormone imbalances, and even cellular damage.
Toxins like cigarette smoke and alcohol contribute to the formation of ROS, which make the cell less effective at making energy. The damage they cause to the cell can be irreversible and lead to cell death, and even permanent mutations.
Use the Power of Light Therapy Against Energy Depletion
There are multiple pathways through which red light therapy can help boost your ATP.
Vitamin D is notoriously difficult to obtain from food, and research suggests that supplements don’t actually offer any health benefits. The one sure way to produce enough of this vitamin is to spend time in the sun. However, this is a controversial method due to the increased risk of skin cancer.
Light therapy is a safe and effective way to naturally support the body’s ability to produce vitamin D. This is great news because this prohormone reduces oxidative stress in the mitochondria. A deficiency leads to lowered oxygen consumption in the cells, which can cause mitochondrial decay as well as lowered muscle mass in skeletal muscles.
However, there is another important mechanism through which red light therapy can boost the little power plants of the body. Photobiomodulation with red and near-infrared light increases the potential of the mitochondrial membranes, stimulates the protein chain which plays a crucial role in the Krebs cycle, and boosts the mitochondria’s ability to produce ATP.