by Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
We are having an energy crisis in this country, and it’s not just about fossil fuels. Our frenetic modern lifestyles require constant momentum. We simply don’t have the time—or desire—to be still, regardless of how fatigued we feel. As a result, energy has become a commodity that we buy and ingest. Coffee is the elixir of productivity, and every city block has a Starbucks to ensure we get our fix.
While caffeine overuse is a concern, as a physician I have become increasingly alarmed by the explosion in popularity of commercial energy drinks. With testosterone-laden names like Rock Star, Monster, Bottle Rocket, and Red Bull, they promise boundless energy and endless good times. And with as much as 300 milligrams of caffeine per serving, plus other stimulants, they definitely spike energy—for a while. But in the end, that sky-high energy can just as easily speed in the opposite direction. The end result of this roller coaster is fatigue, increased stress, and anxiety…or worse.
A Sky-Rocketing Crisis?
A new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that the number of energy drink–related emergency room visits doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 between 2007 and 2011. While this is still a relatively small number, the increase is cause for concern. The report calls energy drinks “a rising health problem.”
At the milder end of the spectrum, energy drinks can cause high blood pressure, anxiety, and feelings of panic. More extreme cases feature irregular heartbeats, seizures, and even heart attacks. These symptoms aren’t really surprising, since one energy drink is equal to as many as five cups of coffee, but for people who have underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes, the results can be deadly.
Mixing alcohol into the equation can make matters worse. Stimulants reduce the perception of intoxication. As a result, people tend to drink more, leading to dangerous blood alcohol levels.
Many of us want and need more energy, but we don’t recognize the biological systems that help us maintain our vitality. In traditional Chinese medicine, one of the keys to greater energy is found in what is called “kidney essence.” In Western medicine, this roughly equates to our kidney/adrenal system, which governs a large share of hormonal functions that can affect energy metabolism, blood sugar regulation, fat storage, cardiovascular function, and the conversion of fat and protein into fuel.
When our kidney/adrenal system is exhausted from chronic stress, poor nutrition, and other factors, we may suffer from adrenal fatigue syndrome and a host of related problems that include excess weight and sluggish metabolism. This is especially the case when, over time, adrenal fatigue negatively affects our digestive enzymes and insulin metabolism.
Some of the hormones excreted by the adrenals are responsible for balancing the autonomic nervous system: Our rest/relaxation and fight/flight responses. So for optimal energy and vitality, the adrenals have to have flexibility: to wake up and respond quickly in times of danger and let us relax when we’re safe. But when we use potent stimulants, such as commercial energy drinks, we are really pushing that aspect of our nervous system to the limit, and then it crashes very quickly. We are stretching the rubber band, so to speak, so much that it loses its flexibility. This is reflected in disrupted biorhythms such as imbalanced cortisol fluctuations; levels don’t change between different times of the day, as they are supposed to. This can have numerous detrimental health effects and in terms of energy levels, it means we need more and more stimulation to achieve even a mild increase.
The kidney/adrenal system is part of the bigger picture. But from a cellular energy perspective, we need to look at our mitochondria, the cellular “engines” that produce much of the energy we need to function. Cells that require more energy, such as neurons and muscle cells, have more mitochondria. When these microscopic cellular machines run efficiently, it makes a dramatic difference in our overall energy and health. But when something called “mitochondrial dysfunction” happens—mainly due to unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits—our energy production becomes very inefficient. The results are acidity and inflammation throughout the body, leading to fatigue and numerous degenerative illnesses.
Drug-Free Energy Solutions
The first step towards maintaining strong, balanced energy is to adopt a healthy diet. Think lean protein, whole grains, fruits, nuts, cruciferous vegetables, and lots of filtered water. Steer clear of processed foods—especially refined sugars—which generate glucose spikes and crashes leading to fatigue. These foods also cause inflammation and even damage our mitochondria, causing further energy depletion.
Regular physical activity is also key. A number of studies have shown that exercise boosts overall energy levels. In fact, exercise can increase the number of mitochondria in cells. Healthy circulation also plays an important role in supporting energy. Strong blood flow brings oxygen and nutrition to cells and removes waste—functions that have a profound impact on energy.
Also, if you have chronic low energy, establish regular sleep habits—eight to nine hours per night, going to bed around the same time each night. This can help build higher energy reserves and promote better energy usage by helping to regulate circadian rhythms.
To support the kidney/adrenal system, I recommend Korean ginseng, the medicinal mushroom cordyceps, as well as B vitamins. Korean ginseng and cordyceps are both excellent adaptogens, which means they promote flexibility within the body’s systems and allow for greater resilience and adaptability under stress.
Next, let’s look at mitochondria and healthy digestion. This could best be described as an energy pathway: We eat lunch, the body extracts necessary raw materials from the food in our digestive tract, and mitochondria convert these materials into cellular energy. The process is similar for the utilization of oxygen. Poor nutrient and oxygen usage in the body are akin to poor fuel efficiency in a car that needs a tune-up.
To support mitochondrial energy, I recommend digestive enzymes, probiotics, and herbs to boost digestion. In addition, a number of supplements increase mitochondrial energy directly, such as astragalus, Siberian ginseng, the medicinal mushrooms coriolus, shitake, and maitake, and the amino acid acetyl L-Carnitine.
Lifestyle and attitude play a big role in supporting mitochondrial and adrenal energy; if we take the time to practice deep breathing and get proper stress relief and regular exercise, we can allow mitochondria to express themselves and build energy naturally over time. These efforts are also critical for balancing and restoring adrenal function. But if we interrupt these energetic processes with high doses of commercial stimulants, we shock our systems, resulting in acidosis, fatigue, and other degenerative issues.
To support circulation, Salvia miltiorrhiza, hawthorn, gingko, and the medicinal mushrooms reishi and cordyceps are excellent. The enzyme nattokinase also works well.
Will these healthy measures produce the same rush as an energy drink or a venti coffee? No, they certainly won’t. But that’s not the idea. Our goal is to build and maintain constant, stable energy, not to provoke peaks and crashes, and ultimately, healthy energy metabolism means we don’t need the extra stimulants to begin with. We simply allow our bodies to function efficiently with healthy diet, good lifestyle habits, and targeted natural ingredients that also promote overall health in the process.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.