Journey with me through the Networks of Destiny
HealthWise: Why energy drinks starve your brain
What is the most important tool in your network engineer toolbox? The one thing you can’t do anything else without? Mouse? Keyboard? Laptop? Not even close. It’s your brain.
As one of the most complex organs in your body, it requires (demands!) proper care and feeding for optimum performance. But most of us don’t give it a second thought. I didn’t. Didn’t think about it for years. But giving your brain the things it requires makes all the difference in your performance.
To begin, your brain consumes up 60% of the blood sugar available in your blood. If there isn’t enough blood sugar (glucose) available to run the brain, your body will break down other body tissues (like muscles) into glucose. Second, your brain consumes 20% of the available oxygen in your blood. Why? Because the brain is running all sorts of involuntary processes behind the scenes of conscious thinking: heartbeat, breathing, balance, digestion, immune system function, etc. Should your brain run short of glucose or oxygen, bad things happen. Think stroke, caused by a complete loss of blood (and oxygen) to parts of the brain. It’s an extreme example but it illustrates the point well. So it’s crucial to give your brain a steady supply of nutrients, and this is best done through plenty of sleep and high quality food.
But how many of us get enough sleep? Among the broader population, nearly 1/3 of us don’t get enough sleep, and for busy engineers, no doubt that number’s a lot higher. And after dragging yourself out of bed, and stumbling through those groggy mornings, how do you wake yourself up? My favorite was coffee, with lots of sugar and cream. Actually the coffee was just an excuse to have some sugar. Sweet, lovely, beautiful sugar … creamy sugar … with just a hint of hazelnut coffee…
After years of drinking sweetened coffee, energy drinks hit the scene. I still remember the late 90′s, watching sexy young marketing girls handing out free Red Bull at San Diego State University, wondering what it was all about. How little did I know. Filled with all sorts of stuff that coffee didn’t have, energy drinks became my new best friend. More caffeine than coffee, along with taruine (an amino acid that pairs with caffeine to boost mental and athletic performance) and not one, but TWO types of sugar (glucose and sucrose)! Seriously, who needs coffee now?!
It only got better when competition began introducing other products – Monster, RockStar, Amp, V8 Fusion, and on and on. And these have even MORE stimulants: Panax Ginseng, Guarana, L-Carnitine, Not to be outdone, Red Bull started making bigger sizes. It started with 8 oz cans, then 12, 16, and finally 24 oz. If a couple mental boosters are good, then more is better, right? Right.
A Monster in one hand, and a Red Bull in the fridge, twice a day, or as needed, and everything went swimmingly.
Till I got sick. Real sick. Endocrine system exhaustion sick. Get-the-flu-for-six-months-in-a-row sick. Cut-your-hand-and-it-takes-2-months-to-heal sick. That’s when I learned how pernicious sugar can be. It is most certainly NOT your friend.
Eating sugar is a wonderful way to starve your body, the brain included. Why? It has to do with the way your body stores and releases sugar for energy. Your body breaks down all carbohydrates, including common white sugar (sucrose) into glucose, which can be delivered via blood to all the cells of the body. When you eat a meal that contains more glucose than you can immediately burn, the extra gets stored in fat cells. Your body then monitors the glucose level in the blood, and when it falls too low, fat cells release the stored glucose.
Right after you down a Blue Agave Monster, blood glucose levels
skyrocket rise, and the pancreas produces insulin that signals the cells of the body to absorb sugar from the blood. But, increased insulin levels in the blood has an intriguing effect on fat cells: it triggers them to absorb glucose at an accelerated rate, before other body tissues can get their share. And by other tissue, we’re talking muscles and organs – more on this in a minute. Additionally, the high-insulin environment forces fat cells into absorb-mode. A single fat cell can only store so much glucose. When it’s full, the body makes more fat cells. The more sugar you eat, the faster your blood sugar rises, the quicker your pancreas must produce insulin, the faster the glucose is absorbed by the cells.
A sugary snack like Starbucks or Monster gives you a lift for a little while, but then they wear off, and sets you up for a vicious cycle. When you reach for another Starbucks, and then another, over the course of a day, your insulin is chronically elevated, and you’re in a non-stop fat-accumulation state.
As if it weren’t bad enough that you’re getting fatter, there’s another more dangerous process at work here. Remember the effect of increased insulin levels on fat? It triggers them to absorb glucose quickly. The danger is that glucose is shunted away from lean-muscle tissue that desperately needs it. Tissue like the heart, the kidneys, the liver, the digestive system, and your brain are running on empty, over and over again. You’re literally starving these organs and systems, and their malnourished state is the hunger you feel. Over time, you damage these crucial systems to the point of dysfunction via cellular starvation. Why do you think better after a healthy satisfying meal than after your second double-espresso? Because you’ve fueled your body with nutrients it needs, not an addictive drug.
So what do I do?! It’s 10:30 AM/2:00 PM/4:45 PM/6:30 PM and I’m friggin’ starving here!!
As I transitioned away from energy drinks, I replaced them with a variety of increasingly healthy foods; first chocolate milk, then fruit juice, then vegetable juice, then black coffee, then water with fruit, then just healthy meals and water. On the days when I was really dragging low, a judicious 5-Hour Energy was very helpful. The B-complex vitamins play a powerful role in neurotransmission (great for all us thinking types), and the caffeine give a small boost without all the accompanying sugar.
Bottom line: sugary drinks, energy drinks included, are not your friend.
In an absolute energy emergency, they’ll get you through. But use them for what they’re designed for, and don’t mistake an emergency survival tactic with a long-term nutrition strategy. There’s simply no substitute for high-quality healthy food, clean water and plenty of rest. Give your brain what it truly needs, and it’ll pay your career dividends you can’t believe.