Energy - The currency of life


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Despite our lives having more and more energy sparing devices, why do so many of us lack vitality? Michael Ash MEA BSc DO ND Dip.ION defines the meaning of energy and discusses how it can be increased via the intake of the correct nutritional fuel

In clinics, practitioners and clinicians are swamped with clients wanting to know where the energy they once had has gone or why they have never had enough to feel able to cope with the demands placed on them. Is it because we are failing to provide or convert the nutrients our cells need to produce energy? Are we using more energy than ever, but have failed to increase our output to meet our demands? Or is it that we have energy stored in our body but cannot access it?

How do we either rob or deny ourselves this life force? The following lists some of the most common non-pathological reasons: diet low in nutrients, imbalance of essential nutrients, failure to adequately chew food to aid digestion, absence of digestive enzymes and stomach acid, food allergies and intolerances, dysbiosis, parasites, candidiasis, leaky gut, malabsorption, excess tea, coffee and oxalic acid consumption, impaired liver detoxification, adrenal and pancreatic dysfunction, imbalanced blood sugar, environmental pollution, poor breathing, lack of exercise and stress.


Every day, over 100 trillion cells in our bodies are working hard, ingesting and digesting nutrients, removing waste, and reproducing themselves. Healthy and correctly functioning cells provide the energy, which ensures we wake up, get to work, enjoy our recreation, live our lives and retire to bed at night for restful refreshing sleep.

In order for life’s activities to take place, cells must create their own energy. This energy production is essential to life and it is this energy created within our cells we most crave and seem to lack. Yet even when we are tired, our bodies are remarkably active. At rest our normal metabolic processes involved in maintaining our breathing, detoxifying and heat production, consume some 60% of our daily energy production.

Energy is a difficult concept to define. Scientists describe it as the amount of heat given off from the body, but this is of scant relevance to someone worn out after walking up stairs or unable to concentrate because of brain fag. So for the purpose of this article, energy may be described as “the capacity to do useful work repetitively”.

Energy is the currency of life and its presence provides us with choice of action, a lack of which results in a pernicious imprisonment of our bodies and minds. Yet as our vitality is lost and function becomes compressed we find people rationalising this declining capacity as a result of age, genes, bad luck, overwork, family pressures etc, as if it was an inevitability, simply because so many people seem to be the same.

Going to bed exhausted and waking tired, falling asleep during the day, putting off decisions because of a fuzzy mind, missing out on exercise or travel and tolerating unsatisfactory relationships are all linked to our capacity to feel capable of change. Change depends on energy giving us the physical and mental ability to absorb and adjust to new demands.
Cells manufacture energy by burning the substances found in foods
The key issue to keep in mind is that cells manufacture energy by burning the substances found in foods. To do this, the foods we eat are broken down into smaller and smaller components, which include a number of carbon atoms. Eventually, the bonds between the carbon atoms are broken down into the electrons that make them up. These electrons contain energy, which is used to make a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). One of the bonds (the pyrophosphate bond) holding ATP together has great energy potential. When it is broken, it releases the equivalent of approximately seven kcal/mole. This is the energy our cells use to keep us alive.

A steady production of ATP is necessary because only about three ounces of ATP is stored in the body at one time, the amount that will sustain a strenuous activity, such as running as hard as you can, for about five to eight seconds. It is therefore important that our bodies have the most efficient means possible to produce this valuable substance.

So energy is derived from the combination of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Before anything else is considered these are the basic rules to life and energy production. This concept is simple, yet the processes needed by the body to convert food into energy are complicated and the interactions within this programme provide us with many opportunities for failure.

We quite naturally take the presence of energy for granted until it is missing and yet most of us would consider it folly to add diesel to a petrol car even though diesel is a fuel derived from oil, as is petrol. Day after day people put low quality food and drink into their systems and expect their body to perform as if it was running on the perfect fuel. Our system’s remarkable adaptability means we can manage and function on the most appalling diet for so long that the very simplicity of this argument is lost in the search for more complex answers to energy loss. In addition some people’s genetic pool means they will function for longer than the “yellow canaries” or highly sensitive amongst us, but decline in function will still occur earlier than chronology would expect as long as the raw materials are of inadequate composition and quality.


Energy production takes place within mitochondria (sausage shaped organelles) within our cells. We have over 100 trillion cells in our body and each cell has some 300–800 mitochondria (energy factories). The liver cells have as many as 5000, and the heart as many as 20,000 of these units per cell. Each one using many nutrients including the B vitamins, B1, B6, B2, B3, folic acid and biotin, magnesium, manganese, glutathione, calcium, potassium, CoQ10, carnitine, zinc and malate etc, necessary to produce the ATP, we need to empower our body.

Each of the processes undertaken within the mitochondria depends on the presence of nutrients derived from food, so the foods we eat must be of the highest quality. They should include energy dense foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, meats, vegetables and fruit, organic if possible for optimum health benefits. Fluids, especially water, should be drunk regularly. Stimulants such as tea, coffee and alcohol kept to a minimum as they destroy key nutrients necessary for energy production. Meals should be small and regular and people generally fare better when there is a mix of protein, fat and carbohydrate.


In addition to whole foods there are specific modulators of energy, in supplemental form, that can make a big difference to the body’s functional capacity. The following nutrients and herbs have been found to either improve ATP production or support endocrine (hormonal) function essential in maintaining energy.


One of the mitochondrial components which may play a critical role in the declining function of mitochondria is cardiolipin (diphosphatidylglycerol), a special type of fat unique to the inner mitochondrial membrane and which provides important structural support to several of the enzymes necessary for the production of ATP.(1) Carnitine, an amino acid, transports fatty acids into the mitochondria to be converted into cardiolipin. Carnitine effectively takes fatty acids into the mitochondria to be burnt as fuel. Cardiolipin levels and mitochondrial efficiency both decline with age. Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) restores falling cardiolipin levels in aged rat mitochondria to youthful levels.(2) ALC treatment seems to restore the efficacy of the enzymes used in mitochondria by increasing the effects of coenzyme Q10 and glutathione to improve ATP production. (3,4)


Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) acts as a shuttle, carrying important, energy-laden electrons and protons around the cell, to eventually be turned into ATP. Without this shuttle, ATP would not be created, and cells would not be able to create the energy needed. According to a 1990 article in the American Journal of Cardiology, “Coenzyme Q10 is necessary for the mitochondria to perform their functions and is essential for human life.”


NADH (also called coenzyme 1) is a key player in the system of energy production. It is not a hormone or a steroid but a potent antioxidant form of vitamin B3. Present in all living cells it has been shown in clinical trials to benefit people suffering with profound fatigue. NADH stimulates cellular production of the neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin, thereby improving mental clarity, alertness and concentration.

Under average circumstances, about one-third of NADH is produced from vitamin B3 (niacin or niacin amide) and about two-thirds from the catabolism of tryptophan (an amino acid).(5)

When fatigue is present with inability to cope with stress and a reduced immune function, adrenal extract with adrenal supporting nutrients including vitamins C, B6 and B5, zinc and magnesium may help return a person to a state of vitality

Lipoic acid (thiotic acid) is a vital component of two of the enzymes that generate NADH and ATP. The vitamins B1 and B2 also support NADH production, and B2 helps to regenerate glutathione. In addition to its cofactor role, lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant that is effective at scavenging both water- and lipid-soluble free radicals.(6) It picks up some of the free radicals that vitamin C and E miss.(7)


The adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys, have a valuable role to play in the management of energy and adaption to stress. Stress regularly tires us out and although dealing with the root cause is the best solution it is not always practicable. With periods of prolonged stress adrenal function can diminish and may be improved with glandular extracts (concentrated forms of various raw animal glands), which have been used for centuries; and since 1931 (8) medicine has considered their therapeutic value. When fatigue is present with inability to cope with stress and a reduced immune function, adrenal extract with adrenal supporting nutrients including vitamins C, B6 and B5, zinc and magnesium may help return a person to a state of vitality.


This herb in all its variants is often referred to as an “adrenal tonic”(9) and it seems to provide a sparring action to the adrenals. The type known as Panax ginseng.(10) would appear to be the strongest of the varieties and as such is better for the fatigued individual under profound stress. With a less obvious stress burden, the type Eleuthrococcus senticosus, may prove efficacious. Herbalists have always recommended that ginseng is best taken at intervals to avoid the body becoming too used to its effect and negating any benefit.


Approaching energy recovery through the consumption of one or multiple nutrients can often have profoundly beneficial effects, but the greatest success will be achieved through careful selection and consumption of energy rich foods, from a diverse range of sources, and the avoidance of nutrient depleting substances.


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Okayasu T, Curtis MT and Farbe JL. Arch Biochem Biophys 236: 638-45, 1985.
Paradies G, Ruggiero FM, Gadaleta MN and Quaglieriello E. Biochem. Biophys Acta 1193: 324-6, 1992.
Paradies G, Ruggiero FM, Petrosillo G, Gadaleta MN and Quaglieriello E. The effect of aging and acetyl-L-carnitine on the function and the lipid composition of rat heart mitochondria. Annals N Y Acad Sci USA 717: 233-43, 1994.
Mayes PA. Structure and function of the water-soluble vitamins. In: Harper’s Biochemistry [23rd edition], Murray RK, Granner DK, Mayes PA and Rodwell VW [eds.], Appleton & Lange, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1993, page 576.
Packer L. In: 2. International Thiotic Acid Workshop, Schmidt K and Ulrich H (Eds.), page 35-45, Universimed-Verl., Frankfurt, 1992.
Packer L, Alpha-Lipoic acid as a biological antioxidant. Free Rad Biol Med 19, 227-250,1995
Britton SW. Further experiments on cortico-adrenal extract: its efficacy by mouth. Science 74, 440,441,1931
Farnsworth NR. Siberian ginseng, current status as an adaptogen. Econ Med Plant Res 1985 1:156-215
Hallstrom et al. Effect of ginseng on the performance of nurses on night duty. Comp Med East and West 1982; 6: 277-282

Michael Ash has been in practice for eighteen years and is Clinical Director of the Eldon Health Clinic an integrative medicine practice in Devon. In addition he is Director of Nutri-Link Ltd the UK exclusive distributor for Allergy Research Group, providing nutraceuticals for practitioners.





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