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How Can I Get More Energy? with Dr. Chiti Parikh

An expert in integrative medicine explains how metabolism works and the secret to getting more energy.

Feeling tired? There are simple things you can do to maximize your energy. This week, Dr. Chiti Parikh shares with host Faith Salie ways to help our metabolism and circadian rhythms sync up — which will help with energy throughout the day.

Episode Transcript

Faith: Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from New York Presbyterian. I’m Faith Salie.

How can you get more energy? It can feel elusive at times, but turns out there are simple steps to maximize our energy and keep ourselves fueled for the day.

This week, Dr. Chiti Parikh, Executive Director of Integrative Health and Wellbeing at New York Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, explains how we can boost our metabolism and understand our natural circadian rhythm to fight fatigue.

Faith: Dr. Chiti Parikh, it’s so nice to see you again.

Dr. Parikh: It’s my pleasure to be back.

Faith: So today, we want to follow this question, what is energy? How we have it, if, if we’re lucky, or how we don’t have enough of it, which is what most of us say, how to get more of it. When it comes to our body, What do we really mean when we say energy?

Dr. Parikh: It’s a great question. And this is something I hear all the time. We’re often tired. We’re often out of energy. We always want more and more energy just to get through the day. We’re all struggling with this issue. So let’s really talk about it in a way that makes sense.

So in medical terms, describing energy is often something called metabolism, right? We’ve all heard about our metabolism, but we often think about our metabolism as how fast we burn the calories and how quickly we lose weight or gain weight. Metabolism really means how do we convert the food that we’re eating into energy and how well do we use that energy to do everything that the body has to do from our immune system to our digestion to our nervous system? All these things need energy.

You know, when we think about calories, we say this food has 200 calories, right? So we think 200 calories is supposed to give me this much sort of energy to get XYZ done, but our metabolisms are very different. So that’s why two people can eat the same food. Some people gain weight, some people lose weight, some people have more energy after eating that food, some people are in a food coma after eating that food. So how do you explain that difference? This is where I love using Eastern medicine.

In Eastern medicine, there’s a beautiful saying that says food that is metabolized properly turns it to energy and nutrition. Food that is not metabolized properly turns into toxins and becomes a root cause of disease. So food is the same, the calories are the same, but how our metabolism processes it can make all the difference. Partly genetics, but a big part of it is actually epigenetics, basically our diet, our lifestyle that determines which genes are actually turned on and off. Just because we have these genes doesn’t mean that all of them are going to be turned on or off. What we do on a daily basis, from the food we’re eating, our stress, our sleep, every single thing affects and sends a message to our DNA saying this gene is going to be active now or this gene is going to be turned off. So a lot of the destiny of our metabolism, our energy, actually lies right in our hands.

Faith: Can you explain what fatigue means in this context? Is it the opposite of energy?

Dr. Parikh: It’s a canary in the coal mine. So if we really pay attention to fatigue, we can uncover a lot of medical issues or health issues that are in a much earlier stage. So let’s say if I’m sick right now and I have the flu, my immune system is really revved up trying to kill the flu virus so it’s going to require a lot of energy to do that. So if most of my energy is going towards fighting that virus, I have less energy to go to the gym and work out. To be able to eat a steak dinner. So that’s what happens when we get sick. We get tired. We want to sleep a lot more, right?

So that’s what the body does. It’s very intelligent and it’ll put the energy for things that are really high priority, such as something major going on with our health, if a certain organ’s not working properly for fighting an infection, it’s going to prioritize those things.

Faith: Something we haven’t mentioned yet is circadian rhythm. Can you describe that for us?

Dr. Parikh: Circadian rhythm, it’s like your internal body clock. So how does your body keep track of what time it is and what time is it to do what, right? So just like we have a routine, we have a schedule, the body also has a schedule to follow. It has different metabolic functions that it does at different times in the day. So it knows that, hey, if it’s noon, it’s lunchtime, it’s time to digest. Hey, if it’s midnight, it’s time to sleep.

So, our circadian rhythm is very much tied to the sun because that’s the biggest influence on our internal clock. When the sun comes up, the amount of light we’re exposed to is what’s telling our pineal gland inside our brain what time of the day it is. So, before electricity was invented, before we had light bulbs all over the place, before we had computer screens, our body relied on the amount of sunlight we’re getting to figure out what time of, you know, what time in the day it was and what to do.

As we’re exposed to a lot of unnatural light, um, you know, 24-7, our internal clock tends to get a little bit confused. So it often relies on other things that we do everyday to figure out what time of the day it really is. So some of the other things could be things like our mealtimes and when we go to bed.

So our body is saying, hey, If I eat every day around 8 o’clock, then 12 o’clock, and 6 o’clock, it develops a pattern. It says, these are your mealtimes. So what the body does is maybe 20 minutes before that, it starts the digestion process. It says, hey, breakfast is about to come. Let me get that acid in the stomach going. Let me get the saliva going to get ready for digestion. So for eating at the same time every day, the body knows exactly what to do. Digestion works like clockwork. If I eat at a different time every single day, it’s going to take some time for the stomach to say, oh, I need some acid in the stomach. The saliva needs to be ramped up. A lot of other biological processes need to fall in line to be able to digest the food. So I often see a lot of patients with gas, bloating, constipation symptoms. So before I focus on their diet, I actually prioritize their meal timings.

So patients are often surprised when they say, ‘wait doc, you don’t care about my diet’ and I say, ‘I do care about your diet, but before I fix your diet, I need to fix the meal timings.’ So sometimes timings of these things is far more important than just the content or meals. When we coordinate and synchronize our schedule with that of our bodies, we are in full harmony. That’s where health is.

Faith: It sounds like you’re describing regularity and predictability more than the exact time of day. So you’re not saying you should eat lunch at noon? You’re saying you should keep up with some sort of dependable system for your body?

Dr. Parikh: There are some natural timings of when our body is in the most receptive state to do certain things. So ideal time to — let’s just say we start our day by waking up, right?—so ideal time to wake up is when the sun’s coming up. So the more synchronized our wake up time is with that of the sunrise, the better, because that allows our body to adjust to the sunlight. So exposure to morning light is great to send the right signals to our circadian rhythm. And then ideally have a bowel movement, and then indulge in a very light form of exercise. So in the morning is a good time to get our exercise going, because naturally our cortisol, the stress hormone, tends to be high in the morning. So if we exercise in the morning, it brings our cortisol down because of all the endorphins from the exercise. So it can be a great start to our day, followed by a breakfast, a healthy balanced breakfast. So we’ll nourish your body first thing in the morning. It gives you ample calories, ample fuel for your body to do whatever it needs to do as the day proceeds. And then, is your ideal time to be productive is between your breakfast and your lunch.

So in the morning hours around between 9 and 12, that’s when your productivity, your ability to focus is at its peak. So time to get that work done. And then comes lunchtime. And our digestion is naturally the strongest when the sun is at the peak. So I always say lunchtime, lunch should be your biggest meal. Your ability to digest is the best. So if you’re craving that piece of chocolate cake or pizza, you’re much better off doing it at lunch than dinner.

Faith: Okay.

Dr. Parikh: And then for after lunch are generally our body’s busy digesting. So our energy levels are not at its peak level, so I always say schedule your boring Zoom meetings after lunch. So this is not the time to, you know, do your best work, but this is the time to do things that are not going to require a lot of your brain power, but things just, just need to get done. Right? And then you get a little bit of surge of energy later in the afternoon. So this is the time where, uh, if you’re afternoon workout type of person, ate afternoon could be a time for you to exercise. That’s another opportunity to get a workout in. Um, that’s also a good time to, according to Eastern medicine, a good time to socialize. So in a lot of cultures, this is the time in the evening before dinner that they go out about town, they socialize, happy hour time.

So naturally, our social battery is at its peak around this time. So this is a good time to connect. This is just, you know, social connections are just as important to our overall health as it is to exercise and to eat a healthy diet. So don’t forget about that.

Faith: And then I assume you’re about to tell us it’s a good idea to go to sleep when it’s dark. But what if it gets dark around six or seven?

Dr. Parikh: I know. So this is the time when the sun goes down is a good time to have your dinner. So ideally, dinner should be around sunset time. Because once the sun sets, once that exposure to light goes down, our body switches its mode into nighttime mode and nighttime mode is not necessarily meant to digest a big heavy dinner. It focuses more on fixing things, repairing things at night.

This is a great time to sort of focus on our mental health as well, because our brain, our senses have been sort of in an overdrive throughout the day. So we all like to Netflix and chill and like, you know, scroll on our social media accounts for hours. But this is actually a good time to meditate, to do light yoga, to read a book, to actually not overuse our senses too much. Or even just listening to gentle music. So this is a time to unwind. This is a time to recharge our batteries, not to drain it even more before we go to bed. The ideal time to go to bed, it tends to be around 10 or 11 o’clock. So if you’re someone going to bed at midnight, you’re not that far off, and you don’t have to change your whole routine overnight. Again, first thing I focus on is not to change your routine, it is to be consistent with whatever it is that you’re doing.

So even if you’re a night owl, not a problem. Just be consistent about it. So focus on regular mealtime, regular bedtime, and wake-up time. Let’s start there first. And then we can slowly start adjusting your bedtime to maybe go to bed 15 minutes early, just for this month. And then next month, another 15 minutes. So very, very slowly. After a few months, you will get much closer to that ideal circadian rhythm that we’re all looking for.

Faith: You know, you talked about light exercise first thing in the morning. It makes sense to me when you explain that the cortisol levels are high. I always work out first thing in the morning, no matter what. And I actually find that gives me more energy. I mean, it’s expending energy, right? I want to go for a run or work out pretty hard. But I feel more energized after exercise. Why is that?

Dr. Parikh: That’s because the energy that you’re expending, it’s actually lowering your cortisol. That’s the beauty of exercise. You’re burning the calories but you’re actually lowering your cortisol and boosting endorphins that are so good for your physical and mental health.

Cortisol is sort of the master hormone in the body. It also controls our circadian rhythm. So if our cortisol naturally is high in the morning, and then it goes down throughout the day, and it goes down really low in the evening, which allows for the melatonin to go up, which signals our body, hey, it’s time to go to bed. So that’s the normal circadian rhythm. That’s orchestrated by cortisol during the day and by melatonin at night.

Now, if I’m eating at different times, if I’m very, very stressed, psychological stress, that’s going to cause my cortisol to stay up instead of going down as the day progresses. And that’s going to affect our melatonin. That’s going to affect our sleep. So that’s why exercise in the morning will completely change what your body, what your mind is doing throughout the day. That’s why if we can get that in first thing in the morning, your whole day will look different.

Faith: If someone wants to put this knowledge into practice. Where do they start?

Dr. Parikh: So my first step with every patient I meet, we create a schedule. That’s the first step. So it’s not about the perfect schedule that I think you should follow. It’s a schedule that you think you can stick to because remember, consistency is the name of the game. So start wherever you think you feel comfortable, that you’ll be able to handle it day after day. Give me the three meals of the day. When are you going to eat them? What time do you want to wake up? What time you want to go to bed? It doesn’t have to be exact. You give yourself an hour sort of wiggle room around those, right?

Faith: Wait, that was it? Your three meals and when you get up and when you go to bed?

Dr. Parikh: That’s it. Just start there.

Faith: That’s so manageable for starting! Okay!

Dr. Parikh: Exactly. That’s the most important thing you can do because often people skip to the hard part, right? People skip to the part that ‘I want to go. I’m gonna work out at the gym for an hour, I’m going to cut out carbs. I’m only going to eat salad for my lunch’ and so those things are much harder to do and stick to in the long run, so what I’m telling you is simplify things. You don’t have to work so hard if the fundamentals, such as your circadian rhythm if it’s synchronized, then any diet changes you make, any exercise or anything else you do, you’ll get much better results and more sustainable results.

Faith: Dr. Parikh, thank you again for joining us. This was really fascinating.

Dr. Parikh: I’m so glad. Thank you so much for having me.

Faith: Our many thanks to Dr. Parikh. I’m Faith Salie.

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Dr. Parikh: Think about our cell phones that we used every single day, all day long, right?  I rely on my cell phone more than anything, but it’s only going to work if it’s charged, right? If the battery is gone, I can’t be like, Cell phone, just give me two more extra minutes, I just got to know where to get off from the subway stop! right? So our body is the same way.

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Chiti Parikh, M.D., is the Executive Director of Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is board certified in internal medicine and integrative medicine and has additional training in functional medicine, medical acupuncture, and ayurveda. To provide the highest level of compassionate and individualized care, Dr. Parikh combines cutting-edge Western medicine with the ancient wisdom of Eastern traditions into a truly holistic approach. She recently published her first book, Intentional Health. Dr. Parikh has been featured on Dr. Oz show, NBC News, Rolling Stone, VICE news, New York Times, Women’s Health, Wall Street Journal.


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