HIV+ Need to Skip Caffeine for a Real Boost

by Cyd Zeigler Jr.

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 22, 2014

  (Source:Thinkstock by Getty Images)

With the high-paced, high-stress lives most people lead today, there's a constant struggle to keep up our energy. We get less sleep, we strain our bodies with tougher workouts, and we all seem to be magnets for drama and stress. This is especially true for people with HIV.

While many people lean on stimulants, HIV-positive people who need a quick-pick-me-up for a boost should look to simple changes and additions to our diet that can help ward off the fatigue that can naturally undermine everything from a normal workday to an all-night dance party.

"Everyone could use more energy, and sadly, they turn to energy drinks and coffee for energy, when they can really get what they need from food," said Dori Friedberg, founder of Healing Thru Food and a certified nutrition educator and food psychology coach. "Many people don't realize that their energy level or lack thereof is a direct correlation to their eating habits, how they handle stress, and how much sleep they get."

There's no getting around it: Calories are energy. If you're HIV positive, you should worry more about not getting enough of the right food than the latest fad diet. The question is, what kind of calories do you need to put in your body?

Everyone has a stash of sweets sitting on a desk or nearby in the kitchen to give an extra boost during the inevitable post-lunch crash. But a candy bar, whether bite-sized or king-sized, provides only the quickest of quick fixes and leads to another crash an hour later. The best calories an HIV-positive person can consume for energy contain complex carbohydrates, some protein and even some fat.

"That combination of protein and a complex carbohydrate, digested more slowly than simple carbs, increases your blood glucose in a sustained way," Christine Gerbstadt, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, has said. "It boosts energy longer than if you eat gumdrops, for instance."

I can already hear the cries from Chelsea to West Hollywood: "Oh no, not carbohydrates and fat! It's just seven months from swimsuit season!"

Settle down. We're not talking about Wonder Bread here. Complex carbohydrates like steel-cut oatmeal or even whole-grain crackers won't ruin the waistline. And if you combine them, as Gerbstadt said, with some low-fat cheese or peanut butter, you'll feel full and have energy that sustains you for a longer period of time.

If you're HIV positive and are craving a midday snack, consider whole-grain crackers with some low-fat cheese; low-fat trail mix with nuts and grains; a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread; or yogurt with some cereal sprinkled in. All of these snacks effectively combine "good carbs," protein and fat.

One great way to keep up energy is to not lose it in the first place. We want to use energy for things like running on the treadmill, lifting weights, long hikes and dancing 'til dawn. But most of us fill our lives with things that contribute to adrenal fatigue, sucking our energy and making us lethargic.

Believe it or not, the most common culprit is caffeine. The very thing so many people use to keep up their energy contributes to a loss of natural energy.

"If you use coffee as a crutch or to push through that dip in the afternoon, or need it to start your day, this can add to the body's total toxic load and can truly deplete the adrenal glands," said Friedberg. "Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and on occasion, it isn't terrible, but when we use anything in excess, it can be bad news for the body."

That said, for HIV positive people especially, there's absolutely nothing wrong with getting a jolt from time to time from dark chocolate or a cup of java. But relying on caffeine will drain the energy of HIV-positive people over a period of time.

(Source: Thinkstock by Getty Images)

Stress, the Energy Vampire

People with HIV are especially susceptible to stress in their lives. Taking the rights meds at the right time; navigating the dating scene and safer sex; and the stigma some still associate with HIV can have the cumulative effect of bringing you down, down, down.

Simply put, stress acts as an energy vampire. The biological "fight or flight" mechanism in our bodies triggered by stress is designed to drastically increase adrenaline for a short period of time.

The stress we deal with on a day-to-day basis, however, is prolonged. Study after study has shown that prolonged stress drastically shrinks the adrenal glands and sucks out energy like a vampire does blood.

You can handle stress by dumping the unfeeling partner or quitting the high-pressure job. But you may love the lug; and a meaningful, good-paying job can be crucial for your self-esteem (not to mention your pocketbook). So try instead simple changes in diet. They can reduce the impacts of long-term stress on, keep energy level high, and counter the draining side effects of meds.

Eat foods high in Vitamin C and Vitamin B5. They'll help regenerate adrenal hormones naturally. The whey powder protein supplements found in health-food stores can be a good source of Vitamin B5. Many of those whey-powder supplements add Vitamin C as well.

Brown rice and wheat bran have high levels of B5 and are also complex carbohydrates, making them great sources of energy. Mushrooms and sunflower seeds are also great sources of B5.

While a lot of energy problems can be addressed with basic foods everyone has around the house, Friedberg pointed to one supplement that you may have never heard of that brings with it some added benefits.

Certain foods such as maca powder are great for combating stress, she advised, because it is a natural adaptogen. That means it increases your immunity by improving the body's overall ability to take on challenging and stressful situations.

The Peruvian plant maca has a slew of health benefits for HIV-positive individuals, including combating fatigue, increasing athletic performance and memory. A nice side benefit is that it can counter erectile disfunction and helps arouse sexual desire, both a potential side effect of some meds.

Even if you're not having problems in bed, be aware that maca has been shown to produce T-cells in the thymus. There have been studies that point to maca as boosting the overall immune system in people with HIV.

While a lot of stimulants are quick-fixes for low energy and stress, a smart diet that's low in caffeine and refined carbohydrates, and high in complex carbs, protein and key elements like Vitamin B5, can keep you soaring high all day. While a Starbucks grande won't hurt, leaning on a caffeine high can ultimately be debilitating and produce side effects for HIV-positive people.


Related Story

Read More »

Living Well with HIV

This story is part of our special report titled Living Well with HIV. Want to read more? Here's the full list.