When it comes to energy, it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female or whether you work as an executive, a farmer, a gardener, an athlete or a writer—we all would like to have a little (or a lot) more energy. When taking any herbal products, our ultimate aim is to feel better. So it is with using herbs to maintain or increase our energy level.
Taking herbs to help manage one’s energy is a pharmacological approach. Paying attention to routines and lifestyle choices is perhaps the best way to increase energy, supplemented with herbs to help give you that extra edge. The key here, however, is to get that increased edge without making yourself edgy or, worse yet, putting yourself over the edge. It is important to understand what herbal energizers will and will not do.
Using herbs for energy
Basically, herbal energizers fall into two categories. The first and best choice is adaptogenic herbs—substances that help one “adapt” to the normal stresses of life, hence enhance mental and physical capacity, performance, or endurance. This list of herbs includes the well-known ginseng category, such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), along with less famous herbs, such as schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea).
The second category of energy herbs is central nervous system (CNS) stimulants that act in much the same way as coffee—by stimulating the nervous system itself. CNS stimulants include common and well-known alkaloid-containing “foods” such as coffee, tea and chocolate, along with herbs such as guarana (Paullinia cupana), yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), and in my opinion the most-abused herb by association with its alkaloids, ephedra (Ephedra sinica). Inappropriate use of CNS stimulants can make you edgy and, if abused, may produce serious side effects. These are quick-fix herbal energy alternatives. They are not bad things, per se—they just fall under the axiom of “everything in moderation.” Few among us have not at some time in our lives, and perhaps even this morning, taken a cup (or pot) of coffee or tea to get us going—in essence to give us that elusive benefit, energy.
One of the most overlooked and important aspects of using herbs is that of compliance. An important difference between the use of herbs and conventional drugs is that generally speaking, for herbs to be of predictable benefit, they must be used over a much longer period of time, often for at least a month (and sometimes much longer) before any results are attained. Therefore, it is important for the herb user to realize that one must be vigilant in establishing a routine to take the herb on a daily, twice-daily, or even three-times-daily regime, depending on the herb, product form, delivery form, dosage, and other variables.
Lifestyle first, energy herbs for help
You can incorporate appropriate use of herbs for energy into a rational routine for maintaining health. Herbs can help, but they are not the end-all solution. I know that if I have a normal routine, I can maintain high levels of energy during the day and into the evening hours. That means exercise, rest, proper diet, time for myself and remembering to take my ginseng every day. The first step in the routine means getting a good night’s sleep. Some people can get away with four hours of sleep and function with boundless energy. Others, like me, require a good eight hours’ sleep to maintain a normal routine during the day.
Exercise (or lack thereof) certainly affects our energy level. For me, exercise routines of choice include daily walking, outside or on a treadmill, and yoga. If I miss a day, I’ve learned not to beat myself up but get back on the routine as soon as possible. If I do it, I feel better and have more energy. If I don’t, I have less energy. It comes down to that motivation thing. You know what you like or don’t like to do for exercise. To help me keep a routine, I take a yoga class once or twice a week, just to keep me inspired. A little motivational leverage helps. Ideally, I would love to get my exercise by digging in the garden, planting trees, working in the yard, or walking in the woods. If one day I am rich and famous, I will spend my days doing those things. I won’t need a treadmill. But given my present circumstances, I have to find a way to exercise, something I enjoy doing, that makes me feel good and positive about myself. Having energy is all about feeling good, and you can’t achieve it without getting your cardiovascular system churning and building or stretching those muscles.
An obvious and often-overlooked factor to maintaining energy is a good, balanced diet. We all have been bombarded with what that includes—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and fresh vegetables and fruits, in their infinite variety of combinations and possibilities. If you don’t eat, or eat too much of one thing, or binge on carbs, it’s going to affect your energy level—simple as that.
Take some time for yourself to meditate, be in a garden, or be in nature. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a great way to rejuvenate yourself and dip into your innate energy resources, however you define them.
What is energy?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines energy as “vigor or power in action, vitality and intensity of expression, or the capacity for action of accomplishment.” The word root is from the Latin energia or Greek energos, coined by Aristotle, to mean “active at work.” In modern times, we are nothing if not active at work. However, unlike the days of Aristotle, today most of us wish to be equally active at play, so let’s update Aristotle to “active at work and play.” If we try to understand energy from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, the key is qi. In his classic book to help Westerners understand Chinese medicine concepts, The Web That Has No Weaver (Congdon & Weed, 1983), Ted Kaptchuk explains that qi is matter on the verge of becoming energy. This “energy” circulates through the body and protects the organs; if qi is hindered from circulating or is blocked, an abnormal surplus or lack of energy results—hence, the equilibrium of the entire body is upset and a condition of illness is present.
Adaptogens and energy
Many herbs in a Traditional Chinese Medicine context will help to move qi. Only one herb is considered to make qi, and that is Panax ginseng—Chinese, Korean or Asian ginseng. Siberian ginseng or eleuthero helps one adapt to stress, but it doesn’t have the “qi-producing” energy that you would expect from Panax ginseng. American ginseng is considered yet another distinct herb, more “cooling” in its nature and less strong, suitable for individuals with weaker constitutions or for individuals who live in hot climates. Once referred to under the rather ambiguous term of “tonic,” the term “adaptogen” has emerged to better convey what to expect from ginseng and other herbs in the category. Adaptogens have several definitions. An adaptogen is a substance that must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism. Adaptogens are also defined as substances that must have a nonspecific action, such as the ability of ginseng extracts to modulate stress and improve performance under a wide variety of stressful conditions. Yet another definition: A substance that usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the disease state. In other words, an adaptogen is considered nontoxic and may help improve physical and mental performance in stressed, diseased or healthy individuals.
The concept of adaptogens was coined by Soviet researchers more than five decades ago, as they searched for safe, non-CNS-stimulating pick-me-ups for the Russian people. The Soviet scientists are responsible for introducing eleuthero to widespread use, along with schisandra (even though it’s best known as a Chinese herb) and rhodiola, which has only recently been discovered in the U.S. herb market.
The best adaptogenic herbs
Rhodiola has been the subject of a number of recent studies focused in a variety of areas, including potential anticancer activity, prevention of stress-induced cardiac damage, anti- arrhythmia effect, liver regeneration following biopsy and improvement of learning and short-term memory. In short, it is believed to be an adaptogen, or tonic, similar to ginseng.
Eleuthero has emerged as one of the stars of modern adaptogenic herbs. In 1962, the Soviet Ministry of Health approved a 33 percent ethanol extract of eleuthero for human use. Since that time, more than 6,000 healthy, stressed or diseased patients have been involved in clinical trials that measured the effect of the eleuthero extract on exposure to increased heat, noise, motion, and increased exercise and workloads. Effects on mental alertness, work output, and work quality have also been measured. Results were generally positive and side effects minimal.
Schisandra, while a famous herb to Chinese practitioners, emerged as an adaptogen primarily due to Soviet research interest. Still, it is little known in the U.S. herb market. In China, the dried fruits of Schisandra chinensis are called wu wei zi. The fruits have an unusual combination of flavors—the name schisandra means “five flavor-seeds.” If you bite down on a dried fruit, about the size of a peppercorn, your tongue will be treated to five tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, pungent (hot) and salty. The herb is considered “balanced” by virtue of this balance of flavors. Schisandra is an adaptogen, considered somewhat weaker than ginseng but safer in the long term. Laboratory experiments coupled with clinical trials confirm that schisandra helps to improve brain efficiency, increase work capacity, stimulate the central nervous system, improve reflexes, build strength, and increase endurance of healthy individuals. As an adaptogen, it can help give a little boost of energy when used over a period of several weeks.
Adaptogens can help increase energy levels in subtle ways. You probably won’t notice the difference until after a few weeks of use.
Central nervous system stimulants—the last choice
Finally, you can choose CNS stimulants, many of which contain caffeine or closely related compounds, as a short-term fix. Sometimes when people ask me what is my favorite herb, I answer with “coffee.” You don’t have to feel guilty about drinking a cup of coffee. However, if abused, coffee or other CNS stimulants can make you at least psychologically dependent. Furthermore, they can leave you with what Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners call “empty fire.” They’ll give you a noticeable boost at first, but over the long term, they actually deplete energy. In my opinion, ephedra in any form should be avoided as a CNS stimulant. If you need a bronchial dilator for respiratory ailments, ephedra works great in the proper products and dosage forms. But as a CNS stimulant it’s potentially dangerous, raising havoc with the heart, among other potential problems. Just read the long warning labels on any over-the-counter pseudoephedrine-containing product.
Adaptogens help strengthen energy over a long period of time. They make sensible long-term energy boosters when included as part of a lifestyle that promotes good energy. Adaptogens can help balance energy and improve performance. Another solution is to take more vacations. Energy, after all, is what helps us move through life. To achieve energy, you have to learn to relax.
Steven Foster is the author of fourteen books, including the new Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, with Christopher Hobbs (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).