Your bodies ability to produce energy is perhaps the most essential function to life. You can go weeks without eating. You go several days without water. You can typically go 5-10 minutes without oxygen, though it is possible to go rather longer. The record for breath holding is an astounding 22 minutes. (1) However, you can only go 2-3 minutes without your body producing energy.
Optimal energy production is essential to optimal health. You can’t have the latter without the former. I have heard Dr. Frank Shallenberger (a leader in integrative and anti-aging medicine) say it best in his teachings, all chronic degenerative disease is a direct result of free radical damage caused by poor cellular energy production.
All chronic degenerative diseases! And aging as well. Poor cellular energy production is the main cause of aging.
It’s funny, as kids we are always trying to throw off energy, we are full of it, and can’t get rid of it even when we want to. You could bounce on that trampoline for literally hours, and you loved every second of it. As adults you begin to realize how important that energy is. We naturally begin to try and conserve our energy, perhaps without realizing how truly important it is.
Why does poor cellular energy production cause aging and disease?
Poor or impaired cellular energy production causes free radicals to be produced in the production process. Free radicals are always produced in the production of energy, however when the production is optimal and healthy those free radicals are easily taken care of by your bodies built in enzymatic system, as well as the antioxidants you receive from food, vitamins (vitamin c) and from grounding to the Earth. When your mitochondria (your cell’s energy powerhouse) begin to dysfunction you start producing excess free radicals. Free radicals then go on to damage your cells, stealing electrons from them and creating other free radicals that then create more damage. This damage leads to inflammation and any number of the chronic diseases that so many of us struggle to heal. I go deeper into free radicals in the Grounding chapter of the Wellness Roadmap.
So if we can keep our mitochondria functioning optimally or we can get our mitochondria functioning well again our chances of living long, happy, healthy lives greatly increases.
Impaired cellular energy production affects:
- Detoxification ability – important for getting rid of all those nasty toxins were exposed to.
- Cellular repair
- DNA replication
- Osmotic (water) balance (decreased intracellular hydration)
- Synthesis of hormones/proteins/enzymes/DNA/RNA
- Free radical creation
- Higher order processes such as cognitive function – decreased mental capacity
- And finally leads to mitochondrial decay and death down the road
My role as a wellness success and vitality coach (1 on 1 or just in the form of this writing), while I can not diagnose or recommend treatment for diseases, is to help you become aware of all the possibilities that may be causing your mitochondria to dysfunction, and to help you optimize your environment (both externally and internally – mind, body and spirit). In other words, my role is to help you optimize your energy to reach your goals, because as it turns out being tired all the time not only just sucks to deal with, but it is also preventing you from being healthy. Your body is able to heal itself, it wants to heal itself, just like it heals a cut, but so often these days it needs assistance from either addition of what it’s missing or removal of things getting in its way. Your job is to figure that out. You be the Sherlock, and I’d be honored to be your non-Dr. (cuz I’m not a doctor) Dr. Watson.
Unfortunately there are a lot of potential causes of diseases – toxins, viruses, fungals, allergies, bacterial overgrowths, stress, poor diets – all of which have many flavors. And each of these flavors can create a vicious cycle of lowering cellular energy production therefore not having enough energy to heal or detox those problems making them worse making your energy production worse. See where I’m going here.
Fortunately when you learn how your mitochondria function you begin to understand that there really are two main causes that will begin the decline of your optimal cellular energy production. Those two being too much sugar and too much stress. I know what you’re thinking – what’s new, right? You’ve heard it over and over again. But once you understand why, at least for me, it was a profound shift in understanding how I got sick and what to do about it.
So what does optimal energy cellular function look like?
There are 3 main ways your cells make energy
- Through Fat metabolism
- Through Glucose (sugar) metabolism
- Anaerobically – making energy without oxygen
The optimal way to make energy is through fat metabolism, unfortunately breaking down your fats in the way that they enter the energy producing cycle (called the Krebs cycle) requires many different elements, including hormones like cortisol, so this cycle is easy to throw off. Why is it optimal? Because fat produces 130 ATP per molecule vs. 38 ATP per glucose molecule. (7)
Getting energy from sugar is the quick way to get energy, but the problem with glucose is that where there is glucose in your food there is often fructose and fructose does not metabolize the same way as glucose. Sugar containing fructose raises your insulin levels, keeps you hungry as it doesn’t stimulate leptin (the I’m full hormone) or suppress ghrelin (the I’m hungry hormone). And it stimulates fat storage in the cells, leading to weight gain and elevated LDL cholesterol. (6) Further, it’s not that getting energy from sugar is bad, you do need some sugar (far less than the average American eats), but if this is your body’s only primary way of getting energy it means you aren’t metabolizing fat well and/or getting enough oxygen, which is in indicative of health problems and can lead to more.
Anaerobically making energy still uses glucose but it means you are not using oxygen as part of the process to make energy. This leads to a bioproduct of lactic acid. Lactic acid build up in the body is what causes cramps when you are running. It creates an acidic environment in the body, which is far from ideal (which is why they tell you to eat bananas when you are cramping, mmmm potassium laden bananas [alkaline/negative charged to counteract that acidity/positive charge] – or you can check out why grounding is so awesome)
AND NOW FOR A SCIENCE BREAK
This is for those of you that like science. Understanding the energy production cycle, really helped me, but it isn’t necessary. Feel free to skip ahead to the end of the science break.
This is a simplified picture of how cellular energy production works. It begins with either fat or glucose (from carbohydrates). Both can be converted into energy (or ATP), and both are similar processes where enzymes are used to break down the fat or the glucose to eventually get converted into Acetyl Coenzyme A. This breakdown happens in the cytoplasm of the cell, until it breaks down enough to enter the mitochondria. In the mitochondria the pyruvate from glucose or the fatty acids from fat are converted in a further reaction into Acetyl Coenzyme A. To get pyruvate from glucose you need NAD (which you can get from niacin aka vitamin B3). To breakdown fat you first need your main thyroid hormone, T3 and your main adrenal hormone, cortisol. Then you need NAD and carnitine, and to complicate it even more, the whole fat breakdown process requires a lot such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, DHEA, ghrelin, growth hormone, testosterone, and the enzyme lipase. (In knowing this you can see why carbs are well known to be the quick way to get energy.)
The breakdown of glucose into pyruvate that can enter the mitochondria is called glycolysis, and this path requires oxygen. When you don’t have enough oxygen to keep breaking down glucose your body will create energy anaerobically. Anaerobic energy is created outside the mitochondria and is the least optimal of the 3 ways to produce energy. It’s shown in the above picture with the arrow to the E + lactate. This is because Anaerobic energy doesn’t produce water it produces lactate which is an acid. Anaerobic energy production happens when no oxygen is present. Lack of oxygen stops the glycolysis process because the cell runs out of NAD until it can be regenerated in a process called fermentation. In Fermentation, Pyruvate is transformed into another molecule using the energy provided by NADH. NADH gets converted to NAD so that it can be used again in glycolysis, and pyruvate becomes Lactic Acid in animal cells, or Ethanol + Carbon dioxide in plants, yeast, and bacterial cells. (Lactic acid builds up in muscle cells and causes cramps – think cramps you get from running a long time. When oxygen is present again, lactic acid is converted back into pyruvate and broken down by aerobic respiration). (2)
So the more lactate you produce from this least optimal form of energy production the more acidic your body will be. Acidic is not an ideal environment for optimal health. You’ll often hear in the holistic health world about alkaline diets and avoiding acidic foods. While that has merit, anaerobic energy production creates a far greater acidic environment than food will do.
So back to more optimal energy production from fat or glucose. After the breakdown into Acetyl Coenzyme A, Acetyl Coenzyme A then is able to join up with an intermediate of the Krebs cycle called oxaloacetate, and enter the Krebs cycle to start the series of reactions that happen to produce energy.
During this Krebs cycle some highly charged molecules (NADH and FADH-2) leave the cycle and go into the inner mitochondria to the electron transport chain (ETC). These highly charged molecules donate their electrons, which causes a chain reaction of energy being transferred down this chain line to produce high energy for the use of the body, and in the end, water.
Another way to describe this whole process is that energy is made from conversion of oxygen, one of the highest energy dense molecules into water, one of the lowest energy molecule. This releases energy, called ATP. So the end products of this whole energy production cycle are water, energy, carbon dioxide, and heat. A few free radicals as well, and when the system is impaired even more free radicals are released.
AND WERE BACK FROM THE SCIENCE BREAK:
So energy comes from glycolosis (sugar breakdown) OR fat metabolism => Krebs Cycle => Electron transport chain (ETC). Each produce some energy (ATP) when converting high energy molecules to low energy molecules.
And in case you are wondering, our bodies can use protein to make energy, but only do so when there is neither fat nor sugar. Proteins are primarily used for building and repairing.
In optimal cellular energy production you are using more fat than carbs to get your energy and both fats and carbs are preferable to anaerobic energy production. One of the first things you could get tested for that will be a sign of worsening cellular energy function is having poor fat metabolism. And as it turns out there is a lot that goes into fat metabolism which makes it kind of easy to throw off.
Optimal Energy Production Means Optimal Fat Burning
When it gets thrown off your body starts using more glucose, and thus begins your slow decline to poor cellular energy production and eventually disease. Not burning fat efficiently is the first thing that shows up to indicate low function – which also leads to low blood sugar since the body is using that to make energy – which leads to low energy and gaining weight. So if you notice as you get older that it’s all of a sudden not as easy to keep weight off, that is a sign of poor cellular energy production.
So back to the sugar and the stress. Dr. Frank Shallenberger mentions a study he worked on of “healthy” young adults. They came in to make sure their cellular energy production was as good as they thought based on how they felt. The results were about 50/50. Half were as healthy as they felt. Half however, weren’t as healthy as they felt. Of the half that felt healthy but were beginning an internal decline they couldn’t yet see, most had either high insulin or low cortisol, and that was there problem!! Drop mic! Seriously, this was such a light bulb moment for me.
That’s how it’s going to begin for most of us!! Either high insulin, or low cortisol. And how do you get high insulin? – typically from eating too many carbs and in particular sugar (the fructose we were discussing earlier). How do you get low cortisol? – HPA axis dysfunction (also commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue), which generally occurs from chronic stress. Initially in high stress, adrenals create a period of constant high cortisol levels but eventually your HPA axis dysfunctions and your cortisol levels begin to drop and your adrenals “fatigue”. (3) I swear this is a drop mic moment. At least it was for me. Why? Because it gives us a place to start. If you have low energy, start by looking at your insulin and cortisol!
Check Your Insulin and Coritsol
Why are insulin and cortisol so important? Go back to the diagram of making energy. Cortisol is an important part in the breakdown of fat. And insulin actually inhibits the process for the breakdown of both fat and glucose. Stress (cortisol is your stress hormone) also affects the other hormones used in fat metabolism such as T3.
T3, is also really important to fat metabolism. T3 can also be lowered from age, poor liver function from drinking or toxicity (about 20% of conversion of T4 into T3 happens in the liver), mercury, low iodine, fluoride (a thyroid suppressor that gets concentrated in the thyroid just like iodine does, but unlike iodine which the thyroid needs fluoride is toxic to it) as well as stress. If you are in a stage of high stress before your “adrenals are fatigued” the extra cortisol and adrenaline interfere with thyroid hormones.(4)
I’m not saying there is nothing else that could begin the decline of optimal energy production. Genetic issues, viruses, toxins (viruses and toxins creating a form of stress on the body), nutritional deficiencies could be involved. But insulin and low cortisol due to “adrenal fatigue”/HPA axis dysfunction are extremely common problems that lead to disease and aging.
For me it was “light bulb”. I had heard of adrenal fatigue before, but I basically ignored it. I thought, “yeah I probably have that” and promptly moved on. My fatigue wasn’t my primary concern. My autoimmune arthritis was. Afterall the fatigue wasn’t all that bad. Just some midday slumps and struggling to get out of bed in morning. Exactly. Who isn’t like that? Fatigue is crazy common in this world. As I continued to focus on my arthritis, thinking that if I fixed that, my energy would come back, I didn’t realize that I needed to fix my energy production in order to fix my arthritis. To fix my energy production, I needed to fix my ADRENAL FATIGUE!. Of course I’ve spent 14 years trying to fix my arthritis, and really only succeeding at stabilizing it most of the time.
Do you have HPA axis dysfunction (adrenal fatigue)?
You commonly hear HPA axis dysfunction referred to as adrenal fatigue, and it is described in different levels. The first begins with too much stress leading to too high of cortisol. The best thing to do in this case is reduce your stress. Continue with the stress and poor lifestyle choices, and your adrenals will eventually reach a point of full fatigue from stress, where they basically give up and say, F-it we can’t keep up with your stress and stop producing enough cortisol. I think it’s ok to look at adrenal fatigue in this manner, but you aren’t actually describing it accurately. It’s not that your adrenals are unable to produce cortisol. It’s that they aren’t getting the proper signaling to do so. The stress response is primarily governed by the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.
Stress activates the HPA axis and sets off a cascade of neuroendocrine signals that ultimately lead to the release of hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline). Chronic stress can lead this axis to dysfunction and deplete our bodies resilience to bounce back and respond to change and need. HPA axis dysfunction leads to changes in cortisol level along with changes in production of other hormones and neurotransmitters governed by HPA axis (DHEA, melatonin, epinephrine).
Symptoms of low-cortisol:
- Trouble waking up
- Fatigue during day, with a bounce of energy in the evening
- Craving salty foods
- Inability to handle stress
- Autoimmune conditions
- Asthma, allergies or respiratory complaints
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Dry skin
- Extreme tiredness an hour after exercise
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Lines in your fingertips
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low sex drive
- Lower back pain
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Weight gain
If you think you have “adrenal fatigue”, consider working w/ a functional medicine doctor and/or hormone specialist to get your hormones tested and their recommendations for balancing them.
Whether you have low cortisol or not, supporting optimal cellular energy function is vital to your health.
Want to support optimal energy production?
- Eating right – less sugar and carbs avoiding processed foods
- Oxidative therapy – exercise being the simplest, ozone, exercise with oxygen therapy (EWOT)
- Stress reduction
- Adrenal support w/ adaptogens like ashwagandha or rhodiola rosea
- B vitamins – very important to the process – niacin (B3 is a precursor for NAD)
- Glutathione – reduce toxins – neutralizes free radical production
- Unfair advantage – Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) not only provides antioxidant support, but it also stimulates spontaneous growth of new mitochondria within aging cells, and protects the brain’s cells and neurotransmitter systems against neurotoxicity and amyloid-beta protein.
- Lipoic acid (such as with the supplement R-Alpha Lipoic Acid)
- MCT oil – The mitochondria can utilize sugar, amino acids, and fats to generate energy in the Krebs cycle. The MCT oil in the liver will be converted to ketone bodies, such as hydroxybutyrate, which can pass the blood-brain barrier, go up to the brain, and end of the Krebs cycle, and generate energy very, very effectively and efficiently. The ketone bodies are great stimulators of nerve growth factor. They are fabulous fuel for the brain.
- The other beauty of MCT oil, it cannot get converted into fat as in your fat cells. It’s only going to be burned as fuel in your mitochondria. (5)
- L-Carnitine – helps with the breakdown of fats
Further support for adrenals and proper HPA axis function includes:
- Adrenal Grandulars
- Himalayan salt water first thing in morning – helps raise bodies blood pressure reducing the work the adrenals have to do to raise the blood pressure. (and that’s just 1 great reason) I do a shot of about 1 tsp of salt followed by a glass of water (or lemon water)
- B5 – pantathine
- Licorice root extract
- Adaptogenic herbs — panax ginseng, rhodiola, ashwaganda, eleutherococcus
- Cytokine support — Echinacea, astragalus, shiitake mushroom, beta-glucan, beta sitosterol
- Excitatory neurotransmitter support — acetylcholine (Alpha-GPC, huperzine, galantamine), serotonin (5-HTP), tryptophan, St. John’s wort
- Cortisol – this would be working with your doctor and getting actual hormone replacement
- Fixing your circadian rhythms
The short of it:
I am not capable of diagnosing or treating diseases. Nor is that my intention. These statements have not been FDA approved. I’m a girl that has been studying holistic wellness for over 10 years, working on my own health, and feel compelled to share the information I have learned, that I believe in, and that has changed my vitality, performance, resilience, and health for the better. I of course can not guarantee its accuracy, though most has supporting scientific studies, it is always important to note that scientific studies are fallible and some are completed much more stringently than others. Again I’m only sharing information that I believe has improved my life. Further this article contains affiliate links (TOS) and I truly appreciate your support.