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January 12, 2021 10 min read

You are what you eat. Everything from your skin to your blood had to be sourced from your food in one way or another. You’re a meat machine, and you need salt and fat and sugar and a million other things to insulate your nerves and transmit signals and power your cells.

It’s a complicated system, and if you shovel trash into your tank, then you’ll find your energy levels on the floor. Most things are fine and good in moderation, and you can compensate for a touch of sugar here and there with exercise, physical activity, and modulating your diet accordingly.

One weird thing you might have noticed as a sugar fan is a drop in your energy levels. If you’ve ever felt sluggish after a huge soda, felt a nap coming on after a huge cookie binge, or maybe you feel like your diet is keeping you from being as alert as you have been in the past.

We’re going on a deep dive to find the root of this issue. You’ll learn how to keep your cravings in check, how to ingest an appropriate amount of sugar, and how to master the mysterious inner workings of your body.

Slower Than Molasses 

The first thing we should talk about is folk knowledge. Eating a bunch of sweets doesn’t actually send your kids off of the sugar deep end. Sugar affects your energy levels, this can’t be disputed, your body will notice an uptick in blood sugar levels and you’ll feel a little rush after a candy bar, but this isn’t the kind of signal for your brain that will result in the kind of hyperactive behavior that something like caffeine will.

These are two totally separate mechanisms in your body. The caffeine molecule is shaped remarkably similar to the Sleepy Signal in your brain, adenosine. That means that caffeine is able to sit neatly in your receptors, blocking out the adenosine and tricking your body on a chemical level into believing that you’re not tired in the first place. Technically, because adenosine isn’t allowed to send the “sleepiness signal,” you functionally aren’t.

Sugar in your blood will ring some alarm bells in your brain, and you (or your kid) will perk up just a touch, but this is far from a hyperactive signal.

Your body will take note of the spike in available energy, but you’re not about to bounce off of any walls soon. This misconception just comes from confirmation bias. Parents feeding their kids candy are more likely to be on the lookout for hyperactivity, and any kind of uptick in energy, be it from a good mood from getting what the want or feeling more energized by the dinner they had right before the ice cream, is going to be cataloged under the “hyperactive” folder.


Getting Sleepy After a Sugar Binge

What does this mean for feeling sleepy after eating sugar? It’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Your body will notice the uptick in available glucose, and that should perk you up just a little bit.

We should consider a few important things when we’re assessing the state of our bodies after eating a big handful of anything. Our bodies are complicated, they use many different chemicals to send different signals all over the place. That means that sometimes what we’re feeling could be from interactions you’re not expecting. You should always be taking signals from your body and examining your behavior holistically. 

For example, you might be feeling a little sluggish after sitting on the couch at the end of your day and pounding a whole row of Oreos, but there are so many other factors to consider at this point. If you’re good about eating dinner before you settle in at the end of the day, then your body is spending a decent amount of energy breaking your meal into nutrients that your body can repurpose into growing muscle or glucose for the rest of your day.

Your Oreo bender is just the cherry on top of that, at this point. You’re adding to the metabolic load and drawing more energy from your pool, but you can’t rightly say that the sugar from your dessert is what dealt the death blow to your wakefulness. How long was the day before this? We tend to default to junk food at the end of the day when we’re winding down.

What’s really slowing you down at this point? Is it the sugar you’ve eaten or the long day beating all of the energy out of you?

This isn’t to say that you’re in the clear to replace all of your meals with sugar. Empty calories are called that for a reason. They get their name from the nutritional makeup of the sugary foods you would call empty calories. They’re basically just sugar and hardly anything else.

They’re just energy. You can’t live on energy alone we haven’t transcended our bodies yet, so If you tried that, you, ironically, really would feel sluggish all the time. Your body would be crying out for other nutrients to keep itself running. You need a balance of nutrients to live a healthy life, and you’ll feel sluggish without the right amount of protein and rest.

Achieving a balance in your diet and training your body to efficiently store and distribute your glucose. When your cardiovascular system is running at peak efficiency your body will be receiving regular and ample deliveries of the blood sugar it needs to keep your muscles contracting. A healthy cardio system means keeping your brain well-stocked, and you’re going to feel more equipped to take on the day.

When you eat sugar too much without evening out your diet you will upset your wellness in other ways. Your brain secretes a protein called orexin.

Your orexin system is responsible for regulating your wakefulness, your hunger, and your general energy levels. Folks that struggle with the most common form of narcolepsy are familiar with orexin.

Well, it’s more accurate to say they’re familiar with a lack of it. If you’re struggling with the production and regulation of orexin you’re going to have a testy relationship with your energy levels. Orexin is just like any other chemical in your brain, and it reacts to the state of your body and blood glucose levels.

One of the easiest ways to die is to completely deprive your body of sleep. Orexin is one of the primary reasons for this. When your body is forced to stay awake for too long it starts to lag behind in orexin production. Without orexin in your body to help you regulate your metabolism, you’re going to be in deep trouble.

Orexin activates your brown fat, which helps you with important metabolic functions, like keeping your body temperature up in stable working conditions. Orexin helps you regulate your wakefulness, creating a dangerous spiral on the most extreme ends of the sleep deprivation spectrum.

It also helps you regulate your mood, have you ever been cranky after a few nights of your neighbors waking you up early? That’s your brain begging for rest because it’s missing out on the opportunity to generate this important protein. 

Orexin is a protein that loves protein. If you’re looking for an energy boost, this is one of the reasons your dietitian will tell you to reach for a protein shake over a soda. The blood sugar spikes you get from adding glucose into your system pale in comparison to the more robust and sustained boost you’ll find when you add protein into your system.

When you add protein to your system, you allow your brain to crank out more orexin, and keep things running well. Glucose has been found to inhibit orexin production. If you pack some protein in with your sugar intake, then you can overcome this inhibition, and keep things running smoothly.


What Happens to All That Sugar?

Your body doesn’t just flush out excess sugar. You’ve got to use it or you won’t lose it. We all understand that adding food to our systems without using it for anything will add weight to our bodies, but what is that mechanism exactly? If you can understand that, you can get to the core of weight loss and low energy in your daily life. Demystifying the processes of your body will allow you to make more informed decisions about your health. 

Fat cells are more formally known as adipose tissue, and they’re most easily understood as your body’s savings account. We understand the urge to rid your body of it, but you have to admit they have their place, and their function is incredible.

Fat cells keep your body warm, they create crucial hormones, and they keep you dropping dead and crumbling into dust. You’ll never truly be rid of your fat cells, and that’s a blessing. You need your fat cells for a plethora of functions inside of your body and in a different world, fat cells were how humans carried energy around when they couldn’t guarantee a meal from one day to the next. 

Your fat cells create a layer of padding around your organs so they’re not constantly being battered by your daily life. If you had literally no fat in your body, your heart and liver would be in constant peril. An appropriate amount of fat around your organs prevents you from risking constant contusions at the hands of the daily shock you endure from walking or going over a speed bump. A contusion on your lungs is the difference between breathing easily and needing a respirator.

Fat cells insulate your body just like insulation in your home or your bedsheets. They create a buffer layer between the inside of your body and the cooler air on the outside of it. Your body needs to maintain a regular temperature to keep itself operating properly.

Fat cells make that job a little bit easier by holding heat inside for you and keeping the cold away when temperatures drop. Your fat cells are split into white adipose tissue and brown adipose tissue, and brown adipose tissue helps your core temperature by literally generating heat inside of your body, this is a process called non-shivering thermogenesis, you can probably guess where that name comes from.

Your brown adipose tissue creates heat, in simple terms, by doing work. This is the most helpful in infants, giving their bodies easy access to vital heat, and it becomes less prevalent, but still helpful, in adults.

Your body hates wasting resources, and that’s why you have to work so hard to get rid of fat. Fat is primarily the rainy day fund. Imagining it like a savings account explains a lot about how your body sees fat. You wouldn’t just dip into your savings to make a regular purchase. Your savings are for big purchases and dire circumstances. 

Where do we get fat from? Your food is your paycheck. Your body’s regular expenses are your day-to-day activities. You eat to live, you spend energy on breathing, walking, beating your heart, and so on. When you start to tiptoe into the realm of excess energy, your body thinks you’re going to need it later (and in some ways it’s right). This is when you start creating fat cells. 

Sugar as we know it in our foods be it granulated white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, is, in some form or another, the precious glucose our body craves just in more complex forms. After we eat it, our body goes through the process of spending energy to break it down.

Eventually, the unharnessed energy makes it to our liver which transforms glucose into glycogen for our bodies to use as energy. Once that energy is out in our bloodstreams it finds places to call home. Glycogen will to either seek to be utilized immediately, it may find local storage in your muscles, or it will become part of your adipose tissues.

Your body will bind excess glycogen with fatty acids and store it as fat cells. This is why eating too much of anything will slow you down. You’re going to be spending your energy on breaking down your food, and if you’ve overinvested, you’re going to be depleting your already free-floating energy on processing your meal just to have it tucked away for later use.

Sugar and Energy Storage

So when you’re feeling sluggish after a big meal, consider the ease of nutritional access of your meal. Is your body having to break apart complicated sucrose molecules to get down to the delicious and useful glucose center? Are you giving yourself protein to please your orexin? How much energy have you given yourself today?

Is it all hands on deck right after this meal, or do you have the energy readily available to keep yourself operating at a decent capacity while your digestive system does its grim work? All of these should be considerations when you’re starting to worry about the excess fat you feel like you may have begun adding on. The kind of fat you want to get rid of when you want to show off your abs, the kind that weighs you down on the scale during your check-ins.

Your fat storage can also be a source of drowsiness in your daily life. If you’re not exercising, you’re not giving your body the opportunity to store as much energy locally in your skeletal muscles. When you have glycogen stores in your skeletal muscles, you’re more capable of easily accessing your energy when you need it.

That means you’ll be more alert and energized in your daily life than if your energy is all locked away in your savings account. Think about the extra steps you have to take to spend money straight from your savings, rather than your checking account. It’s a similar issue with your fat cells. If all of your energy is bound up in fatty acids, then you first have to burn through your more easily accessible energy, however minimal, and then your body needs to take the time to crack open the safe before it can distribute energy to your body from your fat cells. A messy diet will only lead to more sluggishness because of this simple property of your body.


Sweet Success

You don’t have to totally exile sugar from your kitchen to keep your body happy. Carbs are what your body craves. You need carbohydrates to make it to the gym in the first place. If you deprive yourself of the nutrition and healthcare that a balanced diet will impart onto your body, then your tiredness will skyrocket and your serotonin levels will suffer.

Tiredness is a sign that your body isn’t getting something important. It can be something as basic as a full night of rest or as complicated as the amino acid tryptophan from your turkey or sugar inhibiting the production of an important protein. 

Your pancreas puts in some serious work to keep your blood sugar in check. Without it you’re running the risk of hyperglycemia all the time, low levels of insulin would be deadly, and your body would probably end up in a diabetic coma. You need to make sure you’re eating particular foods, exercising, and monitoring the overall state of your body will keep sugar from ruining your energy levels. You don’t have to go forever without a tasty treat, just keep it all in moderation and you’ll feel fine.