The Krebs cycle, also sometimes known as the citric acid cycle, at its most basic, is a part of cellular respiration — a set of chemical reactions in our body that generates energy.
Simply put, it is “the mechanism through which we generate energy from the food we consume,” according to Denton Coleman, exercise physiologist and Founder of the Satori Institute. All oxygen breathing creatures have a Krebs cycle, including you and I.
But all this respiration and energy-making mostly happens totally off our radar, without us having any notion of how it impacts, not just our metabolic function and energy levels, but our entire system. Gaining even just a basic understanding of how the Krebs cycle works can give us insight into the intimate workings of our bodies, and shine light on how to reach optimal energy levels, digestive rhythms, and overall well-being.
The Molecular Level
So, let’s cut to the chase — what exactly does all this mean? Let’s start small. And when I say “small” I really mean microscopic. My ninth grade biology teacher conceptualized mitochondria as the “powerhouses of the cell” and that’s a fitting description considering the entirety of the cycle happens within these tiny little organelles. Our bodies’ mitochondria are always working to convert glucose, sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in an eight-part process from condensation to the molecular end product — that’s energy folks.
The human body wouldn’t survive a second without a constant supply of ATP. A byproduct of this process is carbon dioxide. When we breathe, we oxygenate the cells, allowing them to produce energy. When we exhale, we get rid of the useless byproduct of that process. This whole process — the mitochondria using oxygen to convert raw energy into usable energy (ATP) and creating carbon dioxide as a result — is called “cellular respiration.”
We’re not done yet. Krebs cycle isn’t the only way in which energy is created. There are, in fact, several other ways that your body gets you going, but for sustained, endurance-based energy, Krebs cycle is your saving grace — whether you’re running a marathon or just experiencing a marathon of a workday. The abundant energy produced in the Krebs cycle is essential for you to navigate the world.
Regardless of the fuel source, more pressing is the fact that if you lack a sufficiently productive Krebs cycle, you may suffer depression, fatigue, muscle weakness, and lowered immunity. But it is important to point out that you, yes you can practice nutritional strategies that optimize your energy production.
Supporting Your Krebs Cycle
Your body needs specific vitamins and nutrients to survive — period. And a number of these are essential to energy production.
“Depending upon the macronutrient composition of your diet, certain pathways of the Krebs cycle can be ‘upregulated’ or ‘downregulated’ to yield different levels of end products such as lactate and ketones,” explains Coleman.
“The levels of these end products can have varying effects upon your health based upon your unique makeup, your body’s current needs, and your current state of health.”
Pyruvic acid, for example, is a natural compound that is easily digested in the Krebs cycle for energy. Your body generally makes enough of it to sustain your good health, though some people supplement their body’s natural pyruvic acid production with certain foods to boost their energy. For example, one apple has 450 milligrams of pyruvate. That’s more than enough to sufficiently supplement your natural stores.
Perhaps the overworked and athletically ambitious should adapt a new adage for Krebs cycle health — “an apple a day keeps fatigue away.” Yet, during times of increased need — say during a particularly rigorous workout — your body may run through its pyruvic acid reserve, resulting in a decrease in oxygen to the muscles and a buildup of lactic acid — one of the undesirable end products, adds Coleman. You can blame that increase in lactic acid for the soreness you feel the next day.
A general sense of muscle fatigue can be a lingering problem for athletes in particular related to energy production. There are a number of “buffering agents” that can help prevent against, or ease the effects of a depleted Krebs cycle. These include phosphates (eat your scallops and pumpkin seeds!), the amino acid carnosine (try salmon) and bicarbonates (sodium bicarbonate is a good place to start, and a good excuse to get some carbs — try drinking more effervescent drinks like kombucha).
“As for detoxifying lactic acid: sauna/steam room therapy can be used as a way to detoxify through your largest organ — the skin,” remarks Dr. Alex Rinehart, a licensed chiropractor and Certified nutrition specialist. “If your detoxification is slowed whether by diet, environment, or genetics, you can give all detox systems a little break just by sweating.”
Avenues to increased athletic performance through support of the Krebs cycle process include emphasizing alkaline salts — which effectively reduce lactic acid build up. Yet, as Coleman points out, “We do not receive all of our energy directly from the food we consume.” Vitamins derived from sunshine, as well as abundant, clean water for hydration, support the circuitous workings of energy production cycles.
Ok So How Do I Use It?
When the Krebs cycle has enough energy (generally from carbohydrates), it turns off fat oxidation and you’ll turn your Acetyl-CoA into fat instead of bringing it through the Krebs cycle, explains Rinehart. This is why low-carb diets can boost fat-burning.
If this inhibition of fat oxidation continues long-term or is severe, it leads to high triglycerides and fatty liver.
Glucose usually comes and goes relatively quick, so usually while fasting and so forth, you’ll resort back to fat burning as a source of energy. But if glucose is constantly in supply in a fast and easy way, and your insulin keeps spiking — you’ll keep turning the excess into fat that accumulates in your liver and tissues.
Rinehart says you can prevent this and promote fat burning in a couple of ways:
- Eating complex carbohydrates so there is a slower release of glucose in the first place.
- Adequate protein and fiber ingestion will slow carbohydrate absorption.
- High-fat diets will have you using fat oxidation more as a source of energy.
- Eat medium-chain fats such as those found in coconut oil. These are turned into ketones as energy, and as a result, they help boost fat oxidation.
- Ensure adequate levels of L-Carnitine which helps fats enter the mitochondria to be broken down (too much carbs and insulin basically blocks a carnitine-dependent enzyme which blocks the ability of fats to be burned for energy).
- Exercise, of course.
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Medium-chain fats are largely low in American diets (and can be generally irritating with high intake) and so their unique metabolism is largely ignored by dietary guidelines but they have been shown to boost weight loss including abdominal fat.
An October 2015 meta-analysis published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology made headlines in showing that a low-fat diet was one of the worst for weight loss, and that low-carb and high-fat diets were better.
Complex as it is, the Krebs cycle is the foundation of the most basic as well as the most impressive forms of human expression — the average person doesn’t have to devote any more attention to the elegant process of energy production than the simple act of ingesting nutrient dense, healthy foods.
With that said, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet to optimize your energy production, instead your unique makeup, your body’s current needs, and your current state of health, all impact your Krebs cycle. Accordingly, everyone’s nutritional needs vary significantly. Pay attention to what your body responds to as you try to support it in increasing your energy levels. Having insight into your body’s functions, the procedures that transform raw energy into everything you do — means that you are better able to anticipate the fuel your body needs and to equip it for the best possible performance — no matter what you’re applying your energy to.
Maggie Grimason is a writer and editor living in the high desert of New Mexico. As a runner, a vegan, and an individual with a strong ethic of conservation, she has long been engaged with issues regarding the health of the individual, the community and the planet.
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