It’s a common refrain in the afternoon: “I’m hitting a wall.” The afternoon Bermuda triangle of about 2 or 3 p.m. is replete with people growing rapidly fatigued. A new study has shown what we may not want to eat, and what would be better to offset the wall. Consider it a story on food cures of the wakeful variety.
Researchers found that protein — not sugar — activates the cells responsible for keeping us awake and burning calories. Published in the scientific journal “Neuron,” the study has implications beyond hitting the wall, extending into obesity and sleep disorders.
Wakefulness and energy expenditure rely on “orexin cells.” These secrete a stimulant called “orexin” in the brain. When these unique cells aren’t as active, it can result in sleepiness and weight gain.
Researchers compared what happens when different nutrients reach these orexin cells. They discovered that amino acids, which are nutrients found in proteins such as egg whites, stimulate orexin neurons much more than other nutrients.
(Meanwhile, eggs may be keeping your vision strong as well! Read Crack An Egg for Eye Health.)
Sleep patterns, health, and body weight are intertwined. Shift work and poor diet can trigger obesity. Electrical impulses emitted by orexin cells keep us awake and active, and inform the body that it’s time to burn calories. The question was whether nutrients in food could impact this.
In the brains of mice, scientists introduced different nutrients, such as amino acid mixtures similar to egg whites, while tracking orexin cell impulses. It was then that they saw amino acids successfully stimulating orexin cells.
They have found also that sugar blocks orexin cells, which may help explain after-meal fatigue. So, they decided to look at interactions between sugar and protein. They found that amino acids stop glucose from blocking orexin cells. This may help explain why higher-protein meals can make people feel less calm and more alert than higher-carbohydrate meals.
What we have here is a way to tune brain cells to be more or less active just by deciding what to eat. If you are looking to stay alert, maybe don’t go for the jam-slathered piece of toast or pick-me-up candy bar. Instead, keep some hard-boiled eggs nearby and have that instead. Though calorie contents may be similar, the boost in protein will tell the body to burn more calories out of those consumed. Other great protein snacks include hummus, tuna on crackers, and bean salads.