Like most people, you probably believe that consuming sugar, in the form of an energy drink or a candy bar will give you a boost of energy. We are so sure of this, that we rely on sugar to get us through those last hours at work or give us a quick energy fix before our workout. However, recent studies have shown that sugar may have just the opposite effect.
A study carried out at Loughborough University showed that while energy drinks with high sugar content may give us a sugar rush, the effect is short-lived and soon gives way to feelings of drowsiness and fatigue.
During the study, a group of ten adults was studied to determine the effects of different energy drinks on their levels of concentration and wakefulness. The ten volunteers were asked to restrict their sleep to just five hours the night before they participated in the study so that they would be more tired than usual.
The volunteers were given lunch, an hour after which they were given either an energy drink containing 42 grams of sugar and 30 milligrams of caffeine or an identical tasting drink that contained neither sugar nor caffeine. They were then asked to complete a monotonous test that lasted for 90 minutes.
The test was carried out during the time of day when most people begin to feel a dip in their energy levels. The participants were examined to determine their level of sleepiness and ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
During the first 30 minutes of the test, all volunteers showed equal reaction times and made the same number of errors. However, 50 minutes into the test, those who had consumed the drink containing caffeine and sugar began to show signs of sleepiness and had slower reaction times than those who had consumed the “placebo” drink.
Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University commented that while consuming a large amount of sugar may give you a temporary sugar rush; this is ineffective in combating feelings of drowsiness. He advises people looking to beat afternoon sleepiness to avoid soft drinks high in sugar. He also suggests that a caffeinated drink, like coffee or tea, combined with a quick catnap is a more effective way to stay alert.
So why then are energy drinks promoted as an effective method of boosting energy levels? Studies have shown that energy drinks do little to physically energize the body, but rather stimulate the brain and give an athlete incentive to push through a physically challenging routine.
The reason for these seemingly contradictory reports is that while energy drinks do work to adjust low blood sugar and give the brain a signal to push the body into completing a physical challenge, they are less effective at stimulating a tired and sleepy brain.
So while an athlete may find that drinking an energy drink that contains a lot of sugar gives them incentive to carry on, someone sitting down in the office or in a car is not moving and therefore has no use for the extra energy, the brain is still tired and needs to rest.
Another explanation for the fact that sugar causes sleepiness lies in understanding the orexin system. This is a neuropeptide, or molecule, that is responsible for regulating a number of processes in the brain, from tiredness and drowsiness to feelings of hunger. A lack of this neuropeptide can cause a wide range of problems from obesity and narcolepsy to cataplexy, a condition that causes a weakening of the skeletal muscles when an individual experiences strong emotions such as sadness or a bout of laughter.
Studies carried out on mice have shown that higher levels of orexin can also work to increase the metabolism. In the same way, having low levels of orexin can cause you to feel tired and sluggish. Previous studies with monkeys have shown that sleep deprivation causes the orexin cells to become inactive. Scientists found that the exhaustion can be combated by simply injecting the peptide.
So sugar rich diets can literally make a person both lazy and fat.
Orexin is a bit like your body’s gas pedal, if it goes up or down even slightly, your body’s activity levels are affected. Some studies have shown that an increase in the body’s levels of glucose can cause the orexin’s activity levels to plummet. This could explain why you feel a dip in energy levels after eating a lunch, particularly one that is high in carbohydrates.
It could also be responsible for the ever increasing levels of obesity throughout the Western world, because consuming refined sugars, in the form of candy bars and sodas, can cause the levels of orexin in the brain to be reduced, which in turn reduces a person’s energy levels and prevents them from being physically active. So sugar rich diets can literally make a person both lazy and fat.
But don’t worry, having your lunch break at noon doesn’t necessarily mean you will be sleeping at your desk the following hour. It is just a matter of eating the right things. Research has shown, that unlike sugar, protein can actually increase the orexin levels in your brain. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise to most people, as for a number of years now many dieticians have been promoting diets high in protein as being beneficial to weight loss.
This is also why it is advisable to skip out on snacks high in sugar or carbohydrates and choose protein rich snacks like nuts. A study carried out at Cambridge University also showed that sugar, when consumed in combination with protein, no longer has the same effect on the levels of orexin in the brain.
This was determined through a series of different tests. The first test was carried out using orexin cells in a petri dish. When these were mixed with amino acids, they became active. The next test examined the effects of egg whites on various live animals. When the animals had consumed the egg whites, they became active in their cages and their brains showed increased orexin activity. This effect was observed for a number of hours following the consumption of the egg whites.
In another test, the scientists first gave the animals a protein and an amount of glucose simultaneously. The scientists found that even after consuming the glucose, the animal’s orexin levels were increased. However, when the animals were first given the protein, and then the glucose shortly afterwards, they still experienced a decrease in orexin levels.
So if you absolutely must have that chocolate muffin at on your lunch break, make sure you get some protein in with it to combat the inhibitory effects of the sugar on orexin. These studies show that the body responds very differently to different sources of energy, and what a meal is made up of will greatly influence your body’s performance and energy levels. The types of calories you consume are very important, so simply counting calories won’t do much as far as weight loss goes.
Don’t focus on the amount of calories you will be consuming, instead take a minute to consider the nutritional value of what you will eat, and how it will affect your energy levels and cognitive abilities. Sure, a Big Mac burger may contain protein, but what about the fries, white bread and soda that come along with it?
Next time you are feeling a bit sleepy at your desk, don’t reach for an energy drink or candy bar as these things will only make you even more tired. Take the time to plan your snacks and lunches ahead of time, rather than just heading to the cafeteria and ordering the first thing you see.
Prepare a tuna or egg salad to take with you to work, or keep a stash of almonds in your desk to stave off hunger pangs and stay alert throughout the day. Finding little ways to improve your diet will make a big difference in your life, keeping you active and healthy. If you notice that you always feel tired and unable to concentrate at work despite consuming more protein and less sugar, the problem may simply lie in the fat that you need more sleep.