There are many changes we go through upon reaching adulthood. We trade in our toys for tools. We exchange dreams for jobs. We swap innocence for acceptance. And with it all, we lose the boundless energy of youth.
You hear it all the time. Parents take their kids to the playground and one will inevitably say to the other, while the children scramble up the climbing wall and run around in seemingly random patterns, “I wish I had their energy.”
More than simply a cliché conversation starter, this brings up an interesting question: Where has our energy gone?
And why have we embraced this drop in energy as normal? As a society, we’ve been obsessed with our morning coffee for quite some time. Mugs are emblazoned with warnings to tread carefully around the owner until the contents have been adequately consumed. “Clever” cartoons pepper office break rooms featuring disheveled coworkers pining for their first cup.
In the last several decades, our feelings of lethargy have crept out of the morning hours and seem to cling to us all day. The coffee shops that adorn every street corner have lines of customers from open till close. Energy-boosting drinks and snacks are marketed to our mid-afternoon slump, as though it has always been there and we’re only now addressing it.
Is it simply becoming an adult that suddenly saps our energy? Some magic switch that gets flipped at the same time we register to vote?
No. The answer is no. We weren’t always like this. So what’s going on?
Purpose-Built Addiction: The Food System’s Influence on the Human Body
To truly understand where our energy has gone, we need to understand where our energy comes from. The first source of energy we need to look at is food—proper nutrition fuels the body, so are we eating less and not getting enough fuel? Skyrocketing obesity rates tell us that’s not the issue.
If not quantity, then maybe quality of food needs to be addressed.
Humans are the product of millions of years of evolution. For the vast majority of that time, we were hunter gatherers. Our diet consisted of animals we found or managed to catch, along with nuts, berries, and roots. It was only 10,000 years ago (a drop in the bucket, relatively) when humans began to farm and consume farmed foods on a large scale.
Ten thousand years is not a long time in the context of evolution, and our bodies are still designed to run on the diet we had for the first 9,990,000 years of our existence (give or take a few thousand years).
In the last century, this problem really came home to roost. Once we shifted from growing our food to purchasing it, people in power realized there was money to be made from manipulating diets. Suddenly, food’s purpose wasn’t just to sustain us.
It was purposely being designed to addict us.
Food that had never contained sugars before were being sweetened to differentiate themselves from others. Experts were brought in to find the so-called “bliss point” of ingredients: the perfect amount of sugar or salt to make a food appeal to the largest portion of the population.
Food manufacturers capitalized on our natural attraction to calorie-dense foods (like sugar) which we evolved to crave as a rare reward for our bodies’ metabolic needs.
For the manufacturers, this meant a higher bottom line. For the population, however, it meant we were suddenly getting massive quantities of sugars, salts, and carbohydrates our bodies were designed to crave, but never designed to handle in bulk.
Breaking it Down: You Are What You Eat
How does this affect our energy levels? Eatinh the right food makes a difference. Sugars are processed quickly, giving us quick boosts of energy but then giving us the dreaded crash a short time later. So we eat more.
As a species, we only recently achieved what we call caloric abundance. As the term implies, this refers to the fact that we’re no longer struggling to obtain the necessary number of calories our bodies require. Instead, we’ve shifted to struggling to consume only what we need. When we consume more than necessary, our bodies are still wired to save it.
This biological storage leads to obesity. Obesity leads to a number of metabolic and hormonal changes that could adversely affect our energy levels. Fat contains the enzyme aromatase which converts testosterone to estrogen. Increased levels of estrogen promote fat storage, creating a cycle that continually lowers our testosterone, leading to lower energy levels.
Obesity isn’t the only byproduct of caloric abundance. These changes in our diet could be affecting us in other ways as well.
Don’t Let Dopamine Dictate Everything
Dopamine is a chemical with near-ubiquitous recognition. For years, it was lauded as the addiction neurochemical, the culprit behind all of our problems when we were unable to stop doing something. Research has shown, however, that’s not quite how dopamine works.
While dopamine is released in the brain when people experience pleasure, it is not the cause of the pleasure. Dopamine’s role is actually to inform the brain that something is about to happen that it may like. This allows the brain to remember what is causing this good feeling, so that it can be done again in the future.
More than a pleasure chemical, dopamine is a motivational chemical. The way that dopamine tells us something is going to feel good is what motivates us in the future to do these things. If we don’t have enough dopamine, we don’t have any motivation. Dopamine deficiency has also been linked to a lack of focus, depression, and general fatigue.
In order to understand what in our lives is causing us to have a dopamine deficiency, we need to put on our scientist hats (and our lab coats) for a moment and learn how our bodies produce the neurotransmitter:
- Phenylalanine is the first compound required for dopamine creation. It is an amino acid that is introduced in our diet and consumed by the liver.
- The liver converts the phenylalanine to tyrosine.
- Tyrosine travels through the blood using carrier molecules and is able to enter the brain, assuming there is a healthy insulin response in the body.
- The tyrosine in the brain is converted to Dihydroxyphenylalanine, or DOPA, using oxygen that is transported through the blood using iron as well as folate (a byproduct of folic acid).
- An enzymatic process in the brain uses vitamin B6 to process the DOPA into dopamine.
Ok, we can take off our lab coats now. That was a lot to digest, but the key point is that our diet heavily affects our ability to produce dopamine. In other words:
- We need to consume phenylalanine so that it’s available to our liver.
- We need to have a healthy insulin response.
- We need to consume enough iron and folic acid.
- We need to consume enough vitamin B6.
Getting back to our diets and, specifically, the sugar in our diets, we can see that the way we eat can have a significant impact on our bodies. We all consider the way our diet affects our cholesterol levels and insulin response, but we don’t often realize that our diets can impact every system in our bodies.
From Food to Tech: The Culture of Immediate Gratification
There are multiple sides to every story, though, and in the tale of a growing lethargy epidemic, our brain chemistry is only one. There are also cultural and behavioral aspects that we should consider. Humans have always sought immediate gratification; the desire to feel good is one of the most basic desires. The ability to do so, however, has changed drastically in recent years.
In our earliest iteration, if we desired something sweet, like some berries, we would have to seek it out. Even if we knew where berries grew, we’d still have to travel to get them. And, even then, it was a finite resource; only so many would grow on the bush.
Even 150 years ago, if you wanted a cake, it was still a process. You needed to bake the cake, meaning you had to ensure you had the ingredients—or know how to get them.
Fast forward to now. If you have a craving for something sweet, you go to the cabinet.
Another blatant example of our obsession with immediate gratification can be found in our purses, pockets, or, even more likely, our hands right now—our phones. Nearly anything we can desire is in our hands. Apple’s entire advertising campaign in the early millennium was built on the premise that, no matter what your desire, there was “an app for that.”
If we want social interaction, we no longer meet up with friends and go for a hike or out to a club. We open up Facebook or Twitter, and voyeuristically observe our “friends.”
Need answers to life’s burning questions? We don’t go to a library and track down answers, we simply ask Siri or Google to tell us the answer.
If we want to watch a television show, we don’t have to wait week after week to see what happens next. We simply binge the entire show on our phones in one sitting.
Building Positive Daily Habits: You Are What You Do
Wait—isn’t this what’s supposed to happen? This is the 21st century, after all. Technology was supposed to do all these things for us, and we were going to be happier for it.
The problem, though, is that we’re not. Immediate gratification is just that: immediate, and fleeting.
True, long-lasting satisfaction is proportional to the amount of effort required to attain it. Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky has 12 trails ranging from half a mile to over seven miles, all including the natural splendor of the namesake of the park: a 78 foot long, 65 foot high natural arch. In 1967, however, a chair lift was installed to carry people to the top. No matter what route you take, you’re able to view nature’s wonder. But if you take the chair lift, there was no struggle, no risk, no investment of effort—and the satisfaction is muted as a result.
Our fleeting, instant-gratification culture hurts us in other ways too. Checking our phones for the latest social media activity also triggers the same dopamine cycles that our bodies are used to using for much more important things (like eating enough to stay alive), which feeds into our overall condition of dopamine fatigue and drains our mental energy.
While we stare longingly at our children’s displays of seemingly endless energy, we should shift our thoughts from mourning the loss of our own energy to ways we can obtain it once again. Our bodies are the result of millions of years of evolution, and they excel at adaptation.
For starters, put the phone away. If you’re at the park, don’t pull your phone out, even to take pictures. Inevitably, some notification will drop onto your screen and distract you. Live in the moment, and have fun.
If you don’t often find yourself at the park, start a simple routine of walking, jogging, or cycling. Begin practicing simple meditation techniques using some the apps available (it’s ok to use your phone for this). Exercise and mindfulness practices provide your mind with the opportunity to shift away from craving immediate, technology-backed gratification, and instead start focusing on something real that generates long-term benefits.
Continue to incorporate health-building practices into your daily routine, and your body will respond accordingly. It may require swimming against the cultural mainstream at times, but you’ll also find your flow of energy enhanced as you make efforts toward a healthier lifestyle.