Phil Cameron | Wednesday Apr. 1st, 2015
How often do you hear yourself say, “I wish I had more energy”? With only 24 hours in a day and so many things to do we often feel we are falling short of accomplishing everything we want too. Last month in Bozeman we had Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at MSU and he shared with us some wonderful thought provoking ideas and pictures about science and our solar system. He reminded us that we are all made of the same things; tiny molecules bound together by electrons and re-arranged into many shapes and structures to bring diversity to life on our planet. So how do we get this energy into our bodies?
Alchemy is the science of transforming matter from one state to another. It started as the forerunner of chemistry where medieval “chemists” were trying to change different metals into gold. But really Alchemy can be looked at as the transformation of substances from one useable form to another. In nature there are many examples of this transformation and they tend to bring awe to us in many different ways. Not only the transformation of sunlight into different forms of energy, but in many biological processes also; the combination of a sperm and an egg to create a baby, or the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
Nature devised an ingenious system many billions of years ago for harnessing the energy of the solar system and turning it into a useable source of energy that would sustain biological life. We really need to understand that all the energy we have here on earth comes from the sun. However we can’t absorb that energy and use it directly. Even if we were sun worshipers, much to our dermatologist chagrins, and baked in the sun all day it would not increase our body’s quantities of energy (however it might help our adrenal glands to take a rest). The way nature devised the transformation of the solar energy from the sun to energy our bodies can use is through plants and their magical plant blood - chlorophyll.
I call it plant blood because in essence that is really what chlorophyll is. If you look at the chemical structure of chlorophyll and the chemical structure of hemoglobin, which is part of our red blood cells, you will see there is only one very small but significant difference. Chlorophyll has magnesium in the center of its molecule, where hemoglobin has iron in the center of its molecule. This becomes significant in the production of oxygen in plants, and the ability to carry oxygen in our bodies.
Once plants absorb the sunlight they can convert that sunlight into a useable source of energy that the plant can then utilize for its own physiological needs. The plant energy is stored in two different forms, carbohydrates and sterols or plant fats. Now comes the cool part! Animals have developed physiological processes of digestion to be able to absorb that plant energy and convert it into a useable form for our body..
We have very tiny little cell structures in our bodies called mitochondria; in fact all plants and animals do. The mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouse generating energy from fats and carbohydrates and turning it into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the real energy molecule that we need to function in our bodies. So to go from sunlight to ATP there are some amazing transformations that need to take place. Lets put it in a timeline: first the plant absorbs the sunlight and converts it into carbohydrates, or it converts those carbohydrates into plant fat sterols for use at a later date. Next we have higher-level organisms like cows or deer that can eat those grasses or plants and be able to digest them and remove the carbohydrates and sterols for use in their bodies. The energy gets put into the cells of the animals for utilization or can be stored as fat or glycogen in the livers for use at a later time also. Then we eat the cow or deer and we can use those fats that were converted by the cow or deer into energy our own body can use.
The whole process of this could fill a text book and is very complicated biochemically but I want you to understand that the energy we use in our bodies goes through a big transformation before you can utilize it. What we really want is to be able to use the energy we have as efficiently as possible. Our two main energy sources are carbohydrates and fats both of which get changed to ATP.
Looking at the energy pay out of the different molecules you will find you produce twice as much energy from fat then from carbohydrates. However it takes more time to get the energy out of fat because of the chemical processes where it is much easier to get energy out of carbohydrates, you just don’t get as much.
When you eat highly refined sugar foods the body will burn that energy very quickly. You could imagine trying to heat your house by burning paper in the winter, you get a big flame really quickly, but then the fire dies quickly too and you are still cold. Using fat for energy is like burning wood, you get a much slower burn and you stay warmer longer. In a society where obesity is becoming very prevalent you would think we would have so much energy we could solve all the worlds problems, because again fat is just stored energy. In order to use the fat we have we need to do longer slower activities to burn it, like walking or hiking for an hour or more. To have more energy we need to stop consuming refined carbohydrates and consume more vegetables, proteins and good fats. If we make those dietary changes our body will burn the stored energy we have and we will feel better, and be able to accomplish more with the time that we have.