Understanding the Mid-Afternoon Energy Crash

For too many of us living in today’s fast-paced society, the mid-afternoon energy crash has essentially become commonplace. In fact, the vast majority of my nutrition clients have accepted that experiencing a mid-afternoon energy plummet is a daily occurrence.

However, it is of utmost importance to understand that experiencing a mid-afternoon energy crash is not normal, and is a clear sign from the body that nutritionally, something is not right.

Various factors account for experiencing this energy dip, along with several important and simple steps in remedying the situation. Stable and consistent energy levels are the ultimate goal.

Typically, if we experience a mid-afternoon dip in energy (commonly between 2-4pm), this is a signal that our blood sugar levels have dipped, and we are therefore experiencing fatigue, sluggishness, etc. And, this dip is directly related to the foods we have eaten throughout the day, and were likely preceded by a blood sugar spike.

All of the bodies’ cells utilize glucose in order to produce energy. When the body confronts a reduced supply of glucose to the brain, we then experience symptoms such as brain fog, irritability, sleepiness, poor memory, and overall fatigue. We might also have headaches, and almost always have sugar and carbohydrate cravings.

While diet is the principal reason that the bodies’ blood sugar levels will spike and dip (and is also the most controllable factor), other conditions that should be considered are insulin resistance, adrenal fatigue, and other hormonal imbalances. However, even clinical conditions such as these can often be prevented and treated via diet, and supplementation when necessary.

The primary dietary factors leading to blood sugar imbalances include a history of eating refined carbohydrates, high-sugar foods and beverages, and not enough good quality proteins and fats.

Let’s take a quick look at how refined carbohydrates and sugars affect our blood sugar levels:

  •  There are 3 major macro nutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Fats are the slowest-burning nutrients, followed by protein, and then carbohydrate. This means that carbohydrates (and sugars), are rapidly absorbed by the body, causing a sudden spike in blood sugar.
  • When the body experiences this sudden spike in blood glucose, various organs work in conjunction to regulate blood sugar to a normal range. The pancreas plays the key role of releasing insulin in order to lower blood glucose levels, and if an individual consistently overloads the body with the foods mentioned above, this can lead to insulin resistance over time, as the body becomes over-loaded when forced to continue regulating abnormally high levels of blood glucose.
  • This pattern of eating a high-sugar and carbohydrate diet becomes a vicious cycle of then craving the very foods that are causing problems, as these foods provide a temporary boost to blood sugar levels, only to plummet once again.

We have all heard the breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and in the case of maintaining stable blood sugar levels and avoiding a mid-afternoon energy crash, this is absolutely true.

Starting the day with a breakfast high in refined carbohydrates and/or sugar is basically a recipe for disaster. Let’s consider a SAD (Standard American Diet), and what a typical breakfast looks like. The most common breakfast consumed by Americans is cereal and milk. Cereal is almost 100% carbohydrate, and while milk does offer protein and fat, the type of milk most often consumed is low or non-fat, which is stripped of most of its nutrient value. Without including good quality fats and proteins in the morning, this can easily set the body on a blood sugar roller coaster throughout the entire day, which can be hard to come down from, and can cause major nutritional deficiencies.

Interestingly, there is a major connection between our primary adrenal stress hormone, cortisol, and insulin. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to use glucose immediately instead of storing it. So, when our blood sugar levels are spiking high due to the reasons mentioned above, our adrenals have to work extra hard to meet the cortisol demand. Overtime, this can lead to the condition known as adrenal fatigue.

Here are 5 simple ways to avoid the mid-afternoon energy crash, and stabilize blood sugar:

  •  Eliminate sugar or reduce consumption: Make sugary foods and beverages a strictly once-in-awhile treat. This includes pastries and baked goods, candy, sugar-cereals, sodas, and fruit juices.
  •  Read Labels: Be on the look-out for ingredients that end with “ose” such as glucose, fructose, and dextrose. Other unassuming sugar sources include corn syrup, corn sweetener, beet sugar, turbinado sugar, date sugar, and high fructose corn syrup.
  •  Focus on high quality protein and fat with each meal and snack: Be sure to include a high quality protein or fat in each meal or snack. Great sources of protein include organic chicken and turkey, grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, canned or fresh legumes, and pastured eggs. Excellent healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, organic cheese, and raw nuts and seeds.
  •  Avoid simple carbohydrates and opt for complex carbs: Sources of refined and simple carbohydrates include white bread, pasta, white rice, and baked goods. Instead, focus on including complex carbohydrates of whole foods that offer fiber, vitamins and minerals. Excellent choices are yams, sweet potatoes, and other starchy vegetables (beets, squash and carrots, for example), whole fruit, and whole grains.
  •  Eat frequent meals and snacks until blood sugar is stabilized: Ideally, we should be able to easily go 4-5 hours without eating, and without experiencing excessive hunger and cravings. However, If you are experiencing blood sugar dips, it is a good idea to eat the types of foods discussed here more regularly instead of limiting yourself to 3 bigger meals per day. This will look slightly different for each individual, but try to eat a meal or snack every few hours.

In conclusion, we must remember that regular mid-afternoon energy dips are not normal, and are a cue from the body that dietary changes are in order. Beginning each day with a nutrient-rich breakfast that includes fat and protein, and extending this rule to each meal and snack of the day, will work wonders in ensuring that you experience stable and consistent blood sugar levels. Furthermore, incorporating these tips into your daily diet will help to prevent long-term disease, and support your efforts to achieve optimal health.

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