Fight afternoon slump with protein, not sugar rush: Study

It’s a common habit among workers who hold day jobs: come 3 pm or so, candy bars are unwrapped and sugar-laden beverages pried open. The objective? A sugar rush to fend off mid-day drowsiness.

But scientists out of the University of Cambridge have found that protein -- not sugar -- is what activates the cells that make people alert and burn calories. The study was published in the November 17 issue of the journal Neuron.

Orexin cells secrete an important stimulant in the brain called orexin/hypocretin. When the body doesn't have enough, it can lead to narcolepsy and weight gain.

After comparing how different nutrients affect these cells, researchers found that amino acids -- which are found in proteins like egg whites -- stimulate the orexin neurons more than others while glucose lowers their activity. Moreover, the amino acids also worked by preventing glucose from blocking the activity of orexin cells. In other words, the amino acids worked as a defensive shield against the sugar's offensive assault.

The new findings may explain why protein-rich meals can make people feel less calm and more alert than carbohydrate-heavy meals, researchers added. “Sleep patterns, health, and body weight are intertwined. Shift work, as well as poor diet, can lead to obesity,” said lead researcher Denis Burdakov in a release.

Meanwhile, a study out of the University of Missouri this spring also found that eating a protein-rich breakfast can increase satiety and help stave off hunger pangs throughout the day.

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