A student was filling plates with skin cells; each plate had ninety-six wells the size of apple seeds, and each of these contained twenty thousand cells. She was exposing healthy cells and compromised ones to stress, in the form of a synthetic version of cortisol. “A whole human life span, but in a dish,” Picard said. “Cells age faster if you expose them to stress. They burn energy faster. It’s as though cellular anxiety causes cells to breathe faster. They consume more oxygen. They’re wasting energy, and we don’t know why.”
How to Get More Energy, From Morning to Night
Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America. As a journalist, she has reported from kitchen tables and grocery stores, graduated from beauty school, and gone swimming in a mermaid’s tail. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Elle and many other publications. She’s also a contributing editor with Parents Magazine, a frequent contributor to NYT Parenting, and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast. Her next book, Fat Kid Phobia, is forthcoming in 2023. Virginia lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two daughters, a cat, a dog, and way too many houseplants.
We work, we plan, we organize, we go, fueling ourselves on coffee and pure determination. Until, that is, we fall onto the sofa in a stupor. More of us are struggling with energy issues, experts say; they point to the weak economy, which has us working harder and plugging in longer, and the belief that we can have it all (so what if we’re up till midnight making it happen).
“Just like houseplants need water, our energy reserves need regular replenishing,” says psychologist Michelle Segar, PhD, associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan.
Let in light
“Artificial or natural, light helps optimize the body’s wake-up processes,” says Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Roll up the shades or, if it’s still dark outside, turn on lights.
Terman recommends compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) labeled “cool white” or “daylight.” They’re not just good for Mother Earth, he says: “CFLs with these color temperatures emit a white light closer to outdoor light than the yellowish kind from incandescents.”
Your sleep cycles aren’t optimized.
Your sleep cycles are approximately 70 to 100 minutes each, cycling through phases of REM and non-REM sleep, plus all of the stages in between. Each phase is correlated with specific regeneration or detoxification of cells and organs throughout your body.
Factors like elevated cortisol (stress) levels and unstable blood sugar levels can throw off your sleep cycles. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in bed if your sleep cycles are not healthy. Disrupted REM sleep, for example, has been found to be associated with mild psychological struggles such as irritability and difficulty concentrating.
How to fix it
Research suggests that getting more sunlight exposure in the morning can decrease cortisol levels later in the evening. You should also eat a well-balanced diet that’s focused on real food and avoid processed foods—good nutrition is foundational to keeping your blood sugar stable at night. A healthy diet can also help provide you with a number of key nutrients you need for great sleep, including potassium and vitamin D.
Energy, and How to Get It
For months, during the main pandemic stretch, I’d get inexplicably tired in the afternoon, as though vital organs and muscles had turned to Styrofoam. Just sitting in front of a computer screen, in sweatpants and socks, left me drained. It seemed ridiculous to be grumbling about fatigue when so many people were suffering through so much more. But we feel how we feel.
Nuke a cup of cold coffee, take a walk around the block: the standard tactics usually did the trick. But one advantage, or disadvantage, of working from home is the proximity of a bed. Now and then, you surrender. These midafternoon doldrums weren’t entirely unfamiliar. Even back in the office years, with editors on the prowl, I learned to sneak the occasional catnap under my desk, alert as a zebra to the telltale footfall of a consequential approach. At home, though, you could power all the way down.
Still, the ebb, lately, had become acute, and hard to account for. By the standards of my younger years, I was burning the candle at neither end. Could one attribute it to the wine the night before, the cookies, the fitful and abbreviated sleep, the boomerang effect of the morning’s caffeine and carbs, a sedentary profession, middle age? That will be a yes. And yet the mind roamed: Covid? Lyme? Diabetes? Cancer? It’s no HIPAA violation to reveal that, as various checkups determined, none of those pertained. So, embrace it. A recent headline in the Guardian: “Extravagant eye bags: How extreme exhaustion became this year’s hottest look.”
It was just a question of energy. The endurance athlete, running perilously low on fuel, is said to hit the wall, or bonk. Cyclists call this feeling “the man with the hammer.” Applying the parlance to the Sitzfleisch life, I told myself that I was bonking. At hour five in the desk chair, the document onscreen looked like a winding road toward a mountain pass. The man in the sweatpants had met the man with the mattress.
All of us, except for the superheroes and the ultra-sloths, know people who have more energy than we do, and plenty who have less. We may admire or envy or even pity the tireless project jugglers, the ravenous multidisciplinarians, the serial circulators of rooms, the conference hoppers, the calendar maximizers, the predawn cross-trainers and kickboxers. How does she do it? On the flip side, there are the oversleepers, the homebodies, the spurners of invitations and opportunities, the dispensers of excuses. Come on, man! It’s hard to measure success, if you want to avoid making it about money or power or credentials, but, as one stumbles through the landscape of careers and outputs and reputations, one sees, again and again, that the standouts tend to be the people who possess seemingly boundless reserves of mental and physical fuel. Entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, politicians: it can seem that energy, more than talent or luck, results in extraordinary outcomes. Why do some people have it and others not? What does one have to do to get more?
Energy is both biochemical and psychophysical, vaguely delineated, widely misunderstood, elusive as grace. You know it when you got it, and even more when you don’t. This is the enthusiasm and vigor you feel inside yourself, the kind you might call chi, after the ancient Chinese life force or the pronouncements of the storefront acupuncturist. The kind you seek to instill by drinking Red Bull or Monster, plunging into an ice bath, or taking psychostimulants, like Ritalin or Adderall or Provigil. Nootropics. Smart pills. CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, Bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, vinpocetine. Acetyl-CoA, lipoic acid, arginine, ashwagandha, B complex, carnitine, CoQ10, iodine, iron, magnesium, niacin, riboflavin, ribose, thiamin, Vitamins C, E, and K. Biohackers microdose psychedelics, stick ozone tubes up their butts, or pay fifteen hundred dollars for a seven-hundred-and-fifty-milligram dose of NAD IV. Energy is why we’ve made a virtual religion of 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine, otherwise known as caffeine.
“Society has progressively increased its demands on us, and with that, therefore, our expectations of what we can or should do,” Maurizio Fava, the chief of the department of psychiatry at Mass General, told me. “This has led to a quest for greater ‘energy.’ ‘How can I do more? Doctor, what can you give me?’ ”
“Energy,” though, is a misnomer, or at least an elision. What we commonly call energy is actually our perception of the body metabolizing carbohydrates or fat as energy. Energy isn’t energy. It’s our experience of burning energy, converting it to work. It’s a metabolic mood. As Richard Maurer, a doctor in Maine who specializes in metabolic recovery, and who encountered me one day last summer as I mumbled about a shortage of it, told me, “ ‘Energy’ is a useless term. It is not the perception of stimulation. It is just the capacity to generate work. I think of it as only relating to potential. If a patient says, ‘I want more energy,’ maybe the doctor should just write a scrip for methamphetamine. But that’s false chi.”