Energy - What is it and how do we never seem to have enough?


Energy seems to be an entity that is “seen but never heard”, so what is it? Where do we get it from? How is it produced? The main question on everyone’s lips is could we be doing more to increase our energy levels, put simply, YES!

Energy and our bodies

Energy is defined as “the capacity of our physical systems to perform work”. The human body takes in energy in the form of KiloCalories. A KiloCalorie is typically referred to on the back of food packets, but in energetic terms is the energy required to heat 1g of water by 1℃.

All movements we make and internal physiological processes our body undergoes requires energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the universal energy currency of our body. It is made up of one Adenosine molecule, which is similar to a component of our DNA. This Adenosine is then bonded to 3 phosphate molecules. The bonds that hold these components together are known as “High-Energy-Phosphate-Bonds”, that when broken release copious amounts of energy for us to utilise within the body.

Our body uses a baseline of energy that is required to keep our physical systems active, e.g organ systems, enzymatic reactions, and bond making, this is called Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Any excess energy on top of this is called Physical Energy Expenditure, for example, cleaning the house or playing Badminton. Even unconscious movement like fidgeting and leg-tapping can be classified as this.

In Chinese medicine energy is referred to as “Chi” (Qi). They believe that Chi gives life, and is controlled by the human being. Thus:

“...development of Chi can make an ill person, robust or a weak person, vibrant.”

When do we require excess energy?

Day-to-day energy intakes will fluctuate because it is almost impossible to consume and expend the same energy on a daily basis. However guidance intakes tend not to vary. There are periods of the life cycle that require more energy, these are:

  • Growth in adolescence
  • Pregnancy and Lactation
  • Periods of exercise/extreme activity

Growth is an extremely energy consuming activity the body must undergo. Majority of this is usually undertaken during childhood and puberty. You will see during adolescence Calorie intake will spike, and children's calorie intake it equivalent to most adults. Many studies have shown that malnourishment leads to poor growth. Although, the calorific increases are noticeably large, growth is a very slow process. Adequate energy intake leads to laying of new tissue (bones and connective tissues). In comparison to the episodic and sporadic growth of children, the growth of a fetus is comparatively fast. For this, it has been recorded that pregnant Mother’s require 10% more energy and lactating mothers require 25% more energy that a typical woman.

On the other hand, a person may be considerably active, this may be through exercise or because of an active job. Exercise increases physical energy expenditure and uses calories taken in from food to create movement. Pre-workout supplements make up a large proportion of the supplement market, their aim is to generate more energy and reduce feelings of fatigue, thus encouraging longer duration exercises. In addition, people who have active jobs such as farmers, builders or emergency services personnel, also require extra energy due to the physical energy demands of their work.

How do we get energy?

We get energy from dietary sources, which are then converted into ATP, a usable unit of energy within the body. A Kilocalorie (as previously mentioned) is most commonly seen on food packaging, where each food group combines to form a total calorific unit for the food. Each food group provides a different amount of energy (kcal):

  • Carbohydrates provide 4kcal/g
  • Fats provide 9kcal/g
  • Proteins provide 4kcal/g
  • Alcohol provides 7kcal/g

Consider a human like a machine, we must input energy for energy to output. Despite Carbohydrates being one of the least calorific food groups, therefore the least energy dense, they are the most coherent form for the body to covert into ATP. Furthermore, if fat, the most energy dense source was used as the primary energy source there would be too many adverse effects caused to the body, e.g. Ketoacidosis, pH change, and the potential for coronary heart disease (CHD).

What natural ways can we supplement our energy?

Energy boosting supplements can work  in two ways, firstly, by generating feelings of energy by stimulating the central nervous system,e.g caffeine. These are useful for active exercise or work. Whereas some energy supplements work in conjunction with our metabolism to produce energy at its primary source. The feeling of boosted energy can often be very effective during study periods, high activity exercise or concentration.

Vitamins that boost energy are the B and C vitamins. B Vitamins can be found in a range of foods and Vitamin B complexes. Rich food sources include, yeast, pork, legumes, walnuts, avocados, shellfish and organ meats. Those most essential for energy production include Vitamin B3, B6 and B12. Vitamin C is an abundant vitamin in many fruits and vegetables, such as kale, bell peppers, mangoes, oranges and lemons, it can also be consumed via supplement. These groups of vitamins work alongside energy generating enzymes to increase the efficiency and yield of energy production.

There are also extracts from animal, herbs and botanicals that lay claim to generating energy within the body. Firstly, Cordyceps Sinesis is a fungal source which is believed to increase energy and stamina whilst reducing feelings of fatigue. Creatine is extracted from natural acids (Chloroacetic Acid) and found naturally within the body as part of energy production. A molecule called Phosphocreatine (PC) replaces the phosphate lost from ATP when energy is expended. Creatine simply increases the body’s ability to continually regenerate the PC molecule and thus recycle energy. Caffeine is known as a stimulant. It is found in coffee, tea and energy drinks. Caffeine has been proven to promote work in many physical systems, increasing energy expenditure, motor performance, problem solving ability, short term memory and decrease fatigue. Finally Macais a Peruvian superfood used to generate adrenal hormones which cause increased feelings of energy. One study found that the admission of Maca in a test group led to increased glucose release into the blood. Glucose can then travel to the active muscles where it then can be utilised. Hence, why Maca is now considered a natural alternative to sport supplements.

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”- Benjamin Franklin

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