Health

Salt Or Sugar? How Diet Could Be Contributing To Your Afternoon Crash

By Jacqui Goetz
·  8 min read
shutterstock 1831648441 (1)

Do you regularly notice an afternoon energy crash, or do you struggle with daily fatigue? If so, you may turn to that afternoon cup of coffee or energy drink to get yourself through the rest of the workday, only to experience the next energy crash a couple of hours later.

In addition to the pervasive American tendency not to get enough sleep, there are two diet-related potential culprits that could be tanking your energy levels. One is the infamous drop in blood sugar, resulting in that afternoon sluggishness. The other is a less well-known offender, electrolyte imbalance.  

Let’s dive a bit deeper into how both of those factors may be resulting in your afternoon crash.

It Could Be the Salts…

The major electrolytes – sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium – are vitally important minerals involved in brain and muscle signaling and maintenance of fluid balance. Without adequate levels of these lovely electrolytes, you may experience the following parade of symptoms: headache, low energy, restlessness and irritability, nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, seizures, and even comas. Obviously, those latter symptoms are significantly more severe than the usual afternoon slump, but if you experience any of the other more mundane side effects, you could be dealing with an electrolyte imbalance.  

I imagine that the less frightening symptoms of headache and fatigue may look rather familiar to many of us, especially at around three in the afternoon. For those on the journey of changing a diet or trying to lose weight, those symptoms may appear to be simply the unfortunate side effects of decreasing caloric intake, decreasing the frequency of meals and snacking, or changing the foods to which our bodies have become accustomed. In reality, our bodies may be attempting to signal that they’re feeling an imbalance in some of the minerals that assist with everything from blood pressure to nerve signaling. In fact, a statement from the American Journal of Cardiology indicates that most Americans are chronically low in levels of magnesium, which then results in lowered levels of potassium, due to magnesium’s essential role in potassium uptake. Those deficits can result in our daily energy crash or can even lead to a variety of cardiovascular diseases, especially when combined with an unhealthy diet.  

Electrolyte imbalances in sodium can increase cortisol, which can trigger an increase in fat storage. 

While sodium definitely gets a bad reputation in our American diet, and often with very good reason, diet changes geared toward weight loss combined with increased exercise, sweat loss, and a huge increase in fluid intake may result in an unhelpful shift in the necessary levels of electrolytes. Electrolyte imbalances in sodium can lead to increases in the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, which can then trigger an increase in fat storage and decreased effectiveness of any attempts at weight loss. It’s important to note that the same study also found that significantly elevated levels of sodium also increased the levels of cortisol found in the body. Excessively low or high cortisol levels also seem to be linked to fatigue, suggesting a possible mechanism by which sodium regulates our fatigue levels.  

Obviously, I’m not saying to start dumping salt into everything. The key is balance. The human body loves to be in a balanced state. If it’s out of balance, you can imagine your body’s regulatory systems feeling a lot like a 7-year-old kid on a seesaw trying to make it bounce back and forth with his 2-year-old brother on the other end. The equally weighted push and pull is missing whenever one force, water or electrolytes, significantly outweighs the other, thus leading to the general feeling of fatigue and discomfort that many of us experience every day. 

If you choose supplementation, make sure to get good quality supplementation. There are electrolyte supplements that are loaded with sugar and would likely be best to avoid. Those may result in insulin spikes, blood sugar fluctuations, and a blood sugar-related energy crash, which we’ll discuss next. I’ve been making it a new part of my morning routine to wake up and immediately drink a glass of water with Himalayan pink salt, a very cost-effective, natural source of electrolytes. Working in coordination with your doctor’s guidance and recommendations to keep your electrolyte levels healthy and balanced could help alleviate your daily sense of fatigue.  

…or It Could Be the Sugars

Our other diet-related culprit is a drop in blood sugar levels. Women especially are constantly bombarded with information on weight loss and perfect body image, and we can often diet ourselves into a vicious cycle of blood sugar crashes and spikes that help neither our weight nor our energy. In my own personal experience, I know that I’ve often packed a super healthy lunch with every intention of then not eating again until dinner time. And then when 3pm would roll around, I would be hungry, I would be exhausted, and Tiff’s Treats would get delivered to the office. I would cave and eat the cookie. In thinking about how to defeat the temptation of the sweet treat that I needed to get through the afternoon, I finally realized that if I want to be able to resist the call of the cookie, I need to avoid the energy crash and hunger spike that make it so strong.

So, how do you avoid that sneaky energy crash? I have found two solutions that work well for me: eating enough at my meals and eating foods that are high in protein and healthy fats. To understand why these two tips can make a difference, let’s dive into what our body does when we’re digesting food. 

Make sure you’re eating enough and eating foods high in protein and healthy fats.

For any food that we ingest, we get a release of insulin, which triggers our cells to take food that we aren’t initially using out of the bloodstream and move it into the cells for storage. That’s a very helpful process, but it’s important to have a healthy intensity of insulin release, and that depends on the types of foods triggering the insulin response. With very high, simple carbohydrate foods, especially foods like my delicious Tiff’s Treats cookie, the body will release a huge wave of insulin, experience a massive sugar rush, and break down the nutrients quickly. Because the process is so fast with simple carbohydrates, the sugars available for use will be gone within a couple of hours or less. With the depletion of easily available energy stores comes our nemesis, the 3pm crash. When we ingest a meal rich in protein and fat, on the other hand, our bodies will more slowly break down the nutrients, leading to a longer amount of time in which we have energy already cycling through the bloodstream. This, in turn, can keep an energy crash at bay.

Now, even if we’re eating a healthy meal with protein and fat, the body can still fall into an afternoon energy crash if we simply aren’t eating enough. When the body receives too few calories, it will actually start to decrease the metabolic rate in order to conserve energy needed for the essentials of life, like breathing, blood flow, muscle function, etc. That’s great if you’re actually starving, but that does make starvation a poor weight loss strategy and very unhelpful for maintaining energy. When the metabolic rate drops, we start to droop, becoming sleepy and foggy. This is why I’m not a fan of starvation, especially when it won’t actually result in weight loss and instead will only lead to debilitating lethargy.

Now, this is not a recommendation to snack constantly and eat way more than the actual caloric needs of your body. But it is a recommendation to make the meals we eat satiating, healthy, and sufficient. I’ve found it helpful to try to get at least 30 grams of protein with each meal and to pair it with a healthy fat, such as coconut oil, avocado, eggs, nuts, etc. I also eat dinner fairly late, so I’ve found that I need a hearty snack right around when I would otherwise start feeling my afternoon energy crash. When that snack is something like hard-boiled eggs or chia pudding, I have enough energy to make it through the rest of the afternoon and I really don’t have much difficulty resisting the cookie, even though they always end up right next to my desk. Not nice, coworkers. 

Closing Thoughts

If you regularly experience an afternoon crash, you may want to think through if either of these two factors, electrolyte imbalances or low blood sugar, could be the source. It’s possible to respond to both causes in the moment of symptoms by giving yourself a balanced snack with the appropriate protein, fat, and electrolyte combinations your body needs, but it’s generally much easier and more comfortable to be proactive. Be kind to yourself and listen to the signals that your body may be sending that it wants to return to a healthy, happy, and energized balance. 

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