Even those of us who eat healthy experience the urge to take in some carbohydrates when we feel the late-afternoon sleepiness hit. A new study conducted at the University of Cambridge, however, found protein, not sugar, can best keep us awake and alert.1
In the study, scientists examined a type of cell known as “orexin cells.” Orexin cells provide a stimulant for our bodies which induces wakefulness, the burning of calories, and appetite. Thus, these are good cells to keep turned on.
What happens when orexin cells are turned off or absent?
In previous studies researchers have shown narcoleptics suffer from a deficit or absence of orexin cells.2 Similarly, the gradual loss of orexin cells has been related to the onset of Parkinson’s disease and its symptomatic sleepiness.3 Other researchers have linked the malfunction of orexin cells to obesity as orexin is responsible for triggering the “good” brown fat in our bodies to burn calories.4
So how do we keep orexin cells turned on?
In this newest study, the scientists at Cambridge discovered the best way to trigger orexin cell activity is with the amino acids found in proteins. Researchers determined this by feeding different nutrients, such as proteins and carbohydrates, to mice. It was determined amino acids excite orexin cells, while glucose actually blocks them, or turns them off. That means glucose, i.e. sugar, actually stops your body from being able to create an alert and wakeful state.
Luckily, in this same study it was determined proteins could combat this inhibitory quality of glucose. Amino acids were able to stop the effects of glucose and keep the sugar from inhibiting the orexin cells. Meaning, protein not only turns your orexin cells on, but it protects them from being turned off. So, in real world terms, if you’re going to eat carbohydrates, eat them along with some protein to avoid the post-meal sleepiness.