Keep your brain awake without turning to caffeine and sugar

Irritable mid-afternoon? Trouble falling asleep? Unfocused? If this sounds like you, it could be that you’re relying on fake energy highs to get you through your busy day. Here’s how you can reverse the impact and keep your brain sharp...

When you’re frazzled, stressed and have a long to-do list, it’s easy to turn to little pick-me-ups like coffee, soda and sugary snacks just to get keep going. But those little boosts can be doing a lot more harm than good.

“Stretched by modern lives, stress and poor sleep is very common and it’s easy to be sold on a short-term fix because our bodies crave sugar and stimulants such as caffeine when we’re in an energy deficit,” says nutritionist Libby Limon.

The knock-on effect of these fake energy highs can lead to mood swings, sluggishness, fuzzy thinking and poor judgement, and over the long-term depression, anxiety and burnout.

According to the Gallup Wellbeing Index, 45 per cent of entrepreneurs report being stressed and if you’re dog-tired and facing a deadline, it’s no wonder you take the easy option of a quick sugar or caffeine boost. Ongoing stress and anxiety can cause your body to overproduce hormones such as cortisol, so your energy peaks and lows mean you get exhausted more easily. This can develop into adrenal fatigue, when your adrenal glands are so worn out they can’t produce energising hormones. You become less focused and your memory is worse.

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, the authors of Physical Intelligence have studied top performing women and men across a variety of careers and lifestyles for over 30 years. They know all too well the long-term mental and emotional impact of using these legal highs.

“Too much sugar can be your kryptonite, giving you 20 minutes of an energy buzz, then blood sugar levels drop along with your mood, though the adrenal glands continue to pump out cortisol, making your jittery with reduced brain function,” says Peyton. “Caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline and dopamine, which is healthy in balanced amounts. However, if you’re already feeling under pressure and stressed, caffeine will make your brain fire in all directions, exacerbating your insomnia, anxiety and woolly thinking.”

Unless you’re a saint, we’re all guilty of reaching for a quick energy fix every now and then. We’ve targeted the most common weak points below and given you healthier options so you’re sharper, more focused and can concentrate throughout the day.

If you wake up feeling drained

“Make sure your diet is full of healthy fruits, vegetables, pulses, lean protein and healthy fats,” says Limon. “Feeling drained is a sign you have some level of chronic fatigue. Make sure your basic nutritional needs are met with supplements of Omega 3s, probiotic and vitamin D. Protein with every meal can help reduce overstimulation of stress hormones. Rather than strenuous activity, gentle things like walking, yoga and cycling can help.”

If you feel overwhelmed and anxious throughout the day

“Improve your posture and breathing,” says Peyton. “Constantly feeling overwhelmed and anxious are signs that your cortisol and adrenaline are too high. To balance them, focus on a proper standing and seated posture (no slouching, shoulders back, loose and low). Stand in a starfish pose for two minutes before key presentations or meetings to reduce nerves. Practice steady breathing, with a slightly longer exhale to dispel more carbon dioxide, which raises cortisol if it builds up in your lungs.”

If you can’t function without coffee to kickstart your morning

“Switch to green tea,” says Limon. “People process caffeine at different rates and coffee in moderate amounts can be good for you because of the antioxidants. However, if you feel jittery and are having problems sleeping, switching to green tea will reduce your caffeine intake by 75 per cent. Plus, a key component of green tea called l-theanine balances your energy levels. You can also help support more health energy production in your cells by taking a supplement with Coenzyme Q10, B vitamins and magnesium.”

If junk food isn’t just a treat

“Understanding why and when you choose junk food is key to breaking the cycle,” says health expert Dominica Roszko, founder of www.vegerasta.com. “Is it because of the memories it invokes or is it an easy fix when you’re feeling down and anxious? Many cravings are related to mineral deficiencies, so when you crave chocolate or sweet food, you may be low in magnesium.”

If simple exercise exhausts you even further

“One of three things could be happening,” says Peyton. “You haven’t been eating properly, you haven’t been hydrating properly, and you’re so run down already and experiencing adrenal fatigue that instead of exercise, you need to R.E.S.T. (retreat, eat healthily, sleep and treat yourself).” However, Peyton says this isn’t an excuse to ditch physical activity. “A lack of exercise decreases supplies of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is responsible for the growth of new neurons, which in turn leads to sharper thinking.”

If you rely on a second wind after dinner to keep you awake, ruining a healthy sleep cycle

“Find ways to wind down and relax your body into deep sleep,” says Limon. “Do five minutes of belly breathing, making the inhale longer than the exhale.”

Caffeine can stay in your body for up to seven hours (and even longer in some people), making it harder for your body to reach deep sleep (REM) stages, says Roszko. So depending on when you normally go to bed, have your last coffee at least eight hours before, usually around lunchtime. Gradually cut back over the course of a month, so each week have your last cup of coffee half an hour earlier and by the end of the month your last cup will be a whole two hours earlier than normal. Also don’t have more than one glass of wine at dinner, otherwise you’ll find it harder to reach the deeper stages of sleep.

“Melatonin, the hormone that is involved in health sleep patterns, is promoted by daylight, so make sure you get outside,” says Limon. “Montmorency cherries are also a good source of it.”

If you want to replace your energy highs and lows

“Eat more low glycaemic index (GI) foods throughout the day like avocado, nuts, grains or wholemeal bread to rebalance your blood sugar levels,” says Peyton. “They release glucose gradually, so overcome your sugar cravings by pairing high GI foods with low GI ones, i.e. fruit with a handful of almonds, a banana with wholegrain bread, or rice and beans.”

An ideal breakfast is an egg with avocado and tomato on rye toast, believes Limon. “Snacks should only be eaten if there is a large gap of more than five hours between meals and if eaten, they need to include both protein and fat,” she says.

According to Limon, a recent UK study found that almost half of reported cases of fatigue involved dehydration. When you wake up in the morning, drink a glass of water immediately to stave off irritability and fuzzy thinking.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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