Wake Up To Energy Support

Learn how to energize shoppers.

Scientists aren’t the only ones looking for sustainable energy—consumers are, too. Many want an extra boost to get them through the day. In fact, more than 80% of the world’s population uses caffeine in some way (1). This common go-to stimulant for energy seekers blocks adenosine receptors in the brain that spur sleep and promotes endurance by altering the way that muscles use glycogen. It has become so ubiquitous, present in over 800 products worldwide, that we often overlook the damage that it can cause (1).

Caffeine can be toxic in large doses, and even leads to death if too much is consumed in a short period of time (depending on health and genetics). On average, 300–400 mg per day is tolerable for a healthy adult, but a single coffee can contain more than this daily allotment. The average energy drink contains at least 200 mg of caffeine, and is often synthetic (1).

Although most people will never feel serious side effects from caffeine, major ones include insomnia, jitters, addiction, headaches, elevated blood pressure and anxiety (1). There are, however, other ways to increase energy levels in a natural progression—no spike and drop! Numerous natural supplements work in this manner and target various aspects of health to safely make droopy shoppers feel more energized.

The Process of Energy

The human body runs on chemical power stored in every cell by the high-energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is expended as we breathe, run and jump, and is instantaneously regenerated to keep us going. Mitochondria, a cell’s powerhouse, produces over 160 kilograms of this molecule daily.

At the molecular level, ATP is just phosphate groups connected by several oxygen atoms. Each of these negatively charged oxygen molecules repel each other, creating stores of potential energy. When ATP is converted to adenosine diphosphate (ADP), one phosphate group and its corresponding oxygen is removed, releasing the tension and 30.6 kj/mol of energy with it. This reaction produces energy for the body’s processes, but it also creates oxidative stress, or free radicals. To restore energy the body has used up, the mitochondria use fuel from food and nutrients to convert ADP back into ATP. The ATP is then ready to provide more energy (2).

ATP Producers and Shuttlers

Several of the industry’s leading energy supplements focus on bolstering this ATP production system at the cellular level.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is naturally found in the body and is essential for ATP production. It transports energy-carrying electrons within mitochondria; a deficiency results in energy production at a less than optimal rate. CoQ10 also functions as an antioxidant. By making energy production more efficient, it can reduce the number of free radicals that are produced (3).

In a study that sought to measure the effects of CoQ10 on mitochondria and the bioenergetic state, researchers found that participants experienced improved mitochondrial functionality, namely increased oxygen consumption, ATP synthesis and resistance to oxidative stress when taking CoQ10 (4).

As mitochondria become weak, they die off, lessening the body’s capacity to produce energy. Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) not only helps deteriorating mitochondria regenerate, but it also creates new mitochondria and protects the older ones from the stresses of energy production. This is especially important in the organs that use up the most energy, like the brain or heart, because they contain the most mitochondria (5).

A small human clinical trial published by the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found people consuming PQQ had “changes in urinary metabolites consistent with enhanced mitochondria-related functions” (10).

Magnesium, a mineral in which many people are deficient, is a crucial part of the synthesis of ATP. In fact, ATP exists primarily as a compound with magnesium, called MgATP, which creates the energy necessary to perform certain processes, such as ATP production. Not only does ATP require magnesium to be biologically active (6), but the incredible electrical potential of the mineral bolsters the entire nervous system. Magnesium’s importance in ATP formation means that sufficient levels in the body will supply constant and even energy throughout the day (7).

The energy-producing properties of magnesium were researched in a recent study that tested 25 male volleyball players’ vertical jumps after some were supplemented with magnesium. The results showed that the magnesium-supplemented players improved their vertical jumps by up to 3 cm, even though they were not deficient in magnesium to start with (8).

Vitamin B12 helps the body convert food into glucose. B12 is a catalyst in the reaction that helps convert fat and carbohydrates into ATP. There is, however, debate on the efficacy of B12 supplementation for energy in the absence of deficiency (9).

Carnitine acts as an ATP shuttler, facilitating the transport of fatty acids to be metabolized for energy. Carnitine not only transports the fatty acids into the mitochondria to be oxidized, but it also helps remove toxic substances from the mitochondria to prevent accumulation. It is found mostly in the skeletal and heart muscles, the tissues that most rely on fatty acids for fuel (11).

Researchers exploring mitochondrial dysfunction found that oral supplementation of L-Carnitine and others can significantly reduce fatigue and can also restore mitochondrial function (12).

Ribose, a sugar molecule found in the body, increases the production of ATP in cells and increases levels of ATP in muscles. Studies have shown that when supplemented with ribose, the energy produced by muscles, including the heart, can increase up to 430% (13).


Many herb and plant-based energy supplements act as antioxidants and neutralize the free radicals that are released during energy production. This increases energy levels by minimizing oxidative stress on the system.

Astaxanthin, a supplement known as an athletic enhancer, has immense antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities. It reduces muscle fatigue and soreness by destroying free radicals in the mitochondria and reducing oxidative damage, muscle inflammation and lactic acid. It is a powerful antioxidant, with 54 times the strength of beta-carotene.

A Swedish study was conducted where male students ages 17–19 took 4 mg of astaxanthin a day for six months. The participants’ strength and endurance improved by 62% and their endurance improved three times as fast as the control group (14).

Spirulina, a microscopic blue-green algae, contains several antioxidant components, including phenolic compounds, phycocyanins, tocopherols and beta-carotene, which curb oxidative stress (15). In a study where nine moderately trained males were supplemented with 6 g of spirulina per day, the subjects’ exercise performance was significantly stronger after four weeks (16).

Green tea contains polyphenols and catechins, which act as antioxidants. Although green tea naturally contains some caffeine, a sustained energy lift can be felt from EGCG, a catechin that not only protects cells and DNA from damage, but also has twice the antioxidant power and boosts metabolism and energy expenditure. One study found that green tea increased subjects’ resting metabolic rate by 4% after drinking 90 mg three times per day (17).

Guarana, a seed that contains twice as much caffeine as a coffee bean, is found in many energy drinks. It also contains tannins, antioxidants that cause the caffeine to be released slowly, resulting in longer lasting, steadier energy (18).

Greens, such as buckwheat or celery, are full of polyphenolic antioxidant compounds like tannins, rutin and catechin. In one study on these phytonutrients, relative amounts of phenolics in bound and free forms in various plant-based foods were measured. Total antioxidant activity in the plants was relatively high, measured as 80 for broccoli and 98 for apples, compared to 56 for brown rice (19).


A few energy supplements act as adaptogens, substances that balance the body by counteracting disturbances to homeostasis. If the body is tired, an adaptogen will bring it back to a normal energy level.

Schisandra is an adaptogen with this normalizing action. It can increase mental and physical alertness, promote stamina, and stave off fatigue. It has the ability to stimulate the central nervous system and energize without the jitters of caffeine (20). A Chinese journal published a study where mice were given schisandra to measure the effect of energy metabolism in the brain. The results suggested that large doses of schisandra significantly improved ATP levels (25).

Maca helps to sustain hormone balance and, therefore, elevates energy levels. Northumbria University researchers studied athletes and their race times after supplementation. Half of the athletes were given maca for two weeks while the other half took a placebo. Those taking maca significantly reduced their times compared to those taking the placebo (21).  

Ginseng, which can give a quick energy burst when consumed, has a chemical structure similar to that of human hormones. This allows ginseng to help normalize and control hormone activity, such as increasing metabolism (22). Studies have also shown that ginseng can prevent mitochondrial swelling and improve energy metabolism. One such study found that ginseng increased ATP and ADP levels as well (26).


Thermogenesis is the process by which cells convert energy into heat, a process that increases body temperature and metabolism. Supplements that act as thermogens aid in this process.

Capsaicin, the substance that makes peppers so spicy, causes the largest increase in body temperature of any spice. This heat generation can increase metabolism for a short period by up to 8%, causing more energy to be expended (27). A study on rat metabolism after capsaicin supplementation found that respiration, serum glucose and insulin levels increased for a short time after supplementation, suggesting a spark in metabolism (28).

Bitter orange contains several alkaloids, the most important of which is synephrine. Synephrine only affects beta(3) receptors, those responsible for thermogenesis and weight loss, and not the beta(1) and (2) receptors, which monitor the lungs and heart (29). A summary of several published and unpublished studies on bitter orange’s thermogenic effects suggests that when consumed for six to 12 weeks, bitter orange increased resting metabolic rate and energy expenditure (30).

Many supplements on your shelves utilize a combination of antioxidant, adaptogenic and thermogenic properties to aid in energy production. WF

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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2015