For many individuals, the word “energy” is closely linked to a carbonated energy drink or strong cup of coffee.
However, if you’re curious about how your glucose levels naturally impact your energy levels, you’re a step ahead of the game.
Sleep and rest aside, the sensation of having low energy is often linked to how, what, and when we eat.
Your brain primarily runs on glucose for energy under normal conditions. Given that, it’s no surprise that glucose dysregulation (like Type 1 and 2 diabetes) is linked with decreased energy levels, feelings of fatigue, and reduced alertness.
While there isn’t conclusive evidence or studies that show a direct link between glucose levels and overall energy in non-diabetic, otherwise healthy individuals, we can gain some insights from extrapolating on studies of energy levels in states of metabolic impairment.
For example, individuals with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes tend to experience significant rates of fatigue and low energy, two symptoms that tend to be correlated to acute dips and spikes in glucose levels.
However, it’s worth asking– can all individuals maximize their energy levels by controlling their glucose levels?
Minimize spikes and dips for optimal energy
As we’ll learn, there’s a slight irony to energy levels: the more “energy” we have in our body in the form of glucose, the less subjective energy we might feel.
In one study where glucose levels were sharply elevated to around 300 mg/dL over 20 minutes, the participants noted a significant decrease in “energetic arousal,” as well as worse working memory and attention, slower speeds of information processing, and increased feelings of sadness or anxiety.
The quick spike in blood sugar seemed to directly lead to reduced energy levels and poorer performance on measures of cognition.
Think back to when you had your last “big meal” in one sitting. Soon after eating, you may have experienced the infamous “post-meal slump,” or the distracted period in which you had to actively fight the urge to take a nap.
Not only do sharp glucose spikes seem to cause fatigue and decreasing energy levels, but so do dips. One study in individuals with diabetes found that low glucose levels overnight (between 42 to 59 mg/dL) were correlated with lower energy, decreased well-being, and a faster time to fatigue during exercise the next day (compared to individuals with overnight glucose levels between 90 to 216 mg/dL.
Glucose dips that occur after a post-meal glucose spike, termed reactive hypoglycemia episodes, are notorious for leading to feelings of tiredness, fatigue, and a lack of energy– but some studies suggest that minor modifications of eating patterns can minimize reactive hypoglycemia or eliminate it.
One 2018 study followed three healthy individuals experiencing post-meal reactive hypoglycemia. By changing the participants’ eating patterns to a lower carbohydrate diet and more frequent, smaller meals, the study found that the reactive hypoglycemia in all three participants improved.
Another study found that the fatigue commonly reported by individuals with a new diagnosis of diabetes is worse as fasting glucose levels increase.
High glycemic index foods tend to produce both high blood glucose and insulin levels, which for many people is followed by reactive hypoglycemia and that pesky feeling of fatigue. It has been suggested that low glycemic index meals can prevent hypoglycemia in the post-meal period because they may have less accessible carbohydrates and may generate slower absorption of nutrients, triggering less of an insulin surge (and therefore less of a reactive, exaggerated drop in glucose).
Glucose swings, termed glycemic variability, are also a known trigger of oxidative stress, a process in which “free radicals” are formed that can cause cellular dysfunction. Oxidative stress is often linked to chronic fatigue, further giving strength to the theory that metabolic dysfunction can reduce energy levels.
How to get more energy by controlling your glucose levels
Sometimes, the quest for more energy may require a fundamental psychological shift in how you view food. Another energy drink or coffee may just be a quick fix that blinds us to the metabolic chaos underneath.
Getting more energy likely means modifying a few life habits in the pursuit of metabolic fitness. This will require learning your personal unique response to food and lifestyle choices and distilling your learnings into actionable steps.
Given the research highlighting the links between glucose spikes, glucose dips, glycemic variability, and elevated fasting glucose with reduced energy levels and fatigue, there can be a significant benefit in regularly tracking glucose levels to understand better your personal glucose levels in response to different foods.
You have a few options at your disposal:
- Reduce your carbohydrate intake per meal. Every human body is unique, and we all respond to carbohydrates differently. Some people may be more sensitive to carbs, whereas others aren’t. Testing your response to carbohydrates can help you zero in on how much they raise your glucose.
- Change your carbohydrates per meal. Within the same vein of our metabolic uniqueness, we also respond to different types of carbohydrates differently. For example, the same banana can spike one person’s glucose levels significantly while having a minimal effect on another.
- Try out other metabolic health strategies, like optimizing sleep and engaging in regular exercise, to control glucose levels.
Ultimately, you may just need a metabolic tune-up: consistent, smarter dietary and lifestyle habits based on your own personal glucose data. The only way to know with a high degree of certainty is to test it for yourself and witness the results yourself.
Seeing the data first-hand is an important and empowering opportunity to make personalized lifestyle and dietary adjustments, many of which can contribute to more consistent and stable glucose levels, which may, in turn, lead to better energy levels and reduced fatigue.