Herbs for Health: Best Herbs for Energy

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American ginseng
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Coffee bean
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Camellia sinensis, the source of green and black tea
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The leaf, dried berries, and dried, ground fruit of bilberry
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Bilberry (in the foreground) blankets a forest floor in the Czech Republic.
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Witch hazel

We all seem to want more energy at this time of year, when short days and busy schedules seem to sap our stamina. Herbs, within limits, can help provide us with the vigor and vitality that we lack. When used properly, herbal stimulants and adaptogens can bring our energy forces into balance to keep us healthy and active.

The Chinese Approach

In traditional Chinese medicine, qi means vital energy and is a complex concept that encompasses energy’s origins, functions, and other aspects. Qi is formed in three different ways. Original or inherited qi is passed from parents to child at conception. A second form comes from the food we eat and a third, from the air we breathe. Collectively, these three forms of qi join in the body to provide movement, protection, transformation, balance, and warmth.

The use of coffee and other central nervous system stimulants is a way to nurture qi that most Americans are familiar with, but although these substances quickly provide a burst of zest, they also can ultimately deplete energy reserves, a phenomenon that the Chinese refer to as “empty fire”. The Chinese prefer instead to use a class of herbs known as adaptogens to help the body build energy reserves gradually.

Adaptogen Energy Herbs

Unlike “empty fire”, adaptogens do not directly stimulate the central nervous system but rather regulate the body’s physiological functions without disrupting them. They have been shown to improve the physical and mental performance of people who are healthy, stressed, or even diseased. Adaptogens make good long-term energizers when included as part of a dietary supplement regime.

The best-known adaptogens in the United States are the ginsengs, including Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), and Siberian ginseng, or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

Traditional Chinese medicine considers Asian ginseng to possess warming properties and American ginseng, cooling properties; American ginseng is used to cool and soothe, quench thirst, and reduce fevers, while the Asian species is used to revitalize, especially after a long illness. In Germany, Asian ginseng root products are approved for use as a tonic to take during times of fatigue, reduced work capacity and concentration, and convalescence.

Throughout the 1950s, intensive research on Siberian ginseng was conducted in the former Soviet Union. By 1960, human clinical trials had begun, and in 1962, the Soviet Ministry of Health approved a 33 percent ethanol extract for medicinal use. Since then, more than 6000 subjects, sick and well alike, have participated in clinical trials to measure the effect of the extract on exposure to increased heat, noise, motion, exercise, and workload. Effects on mental alertness, work productivity, and work quality also were assessed. Results were generally positive and side effects minimal.


Moderation, rather than ­reliance or addiction, is the real key to using central nervous ­system stimulants to their best advantage.

Coffee. Coffee is a major world commodity, consumed each day by millions of people seeking a lift. The lift comes from the alkaloid caffeine, which acts on both the cardiovascular and central nervous systems to increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve endurance. The drawbacks of caffeine include its tendency to increase stomach acidity and cause insomnia and nervousness.

Coffee beans are the seeds of Coffea arabica, a small tree native to the mountainous regions of southwestern Ethiopia.

First cultivated in the Arab world, coffee was introduced to Europe in 1615 by Venetian traders. By 1644, coffee was being enjoyed in Marseilles, France, and in 1672, the first café had opened on the Place St. Germain in Paris. By the early 1700s, coffee was firmly established as a common beverage in Europe, and by 1715 there were more than 2000 cafés in London.

Tea. Green tea comes from the dried leaves and black tea, from the fermented leaves of Camellia sinensis, a shrub or small tree indigenous to the wet forests of Asia and cultivated commercially in Asia, Africa, South America, and North Carolina. The lift people receive from tea comes from caffeine and caffeinelike compounds such as theobromine and the­ophylline. Tea leaves also contain vitamins B and C, proanthocyanidins, and phenolic compounds–potent antioxidants that protect cells from harmful oxidation caused by pollution and other factors.

Cocoa. Soon after the Spanish conquistadors first tasted chocolate in the royal court of Montezuma in 1519, a new commodity entered world trade. Today, more than 1.5 million metric tons of cocoa, a source of chocolate, are produced every year.

Cocoa beans are the seeds of Theobroma cacao, a tree found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The beans are removed from mature pods and fermented, then roasted and rolled to transform their chemical components into the familiar, well-loved flavor of cocoa. Cocoa contains both caffeine (less than 0.5 percent) and theobromine.

Other stimulant herbs. Kola trees (Cola nitida and related species) are native to equa­torial Africa and commonly cultivated in tropical regions. Their star-shaped fruits contain seeds used in products such as soft drinks. The seeds contain caffeine (up to 3 percent) and theobromine.

Guaranà (Paullinia cupana) is a climbing evergreen vine native to the Amazon region. In Brazil, a carbonated soft drink made from the seeds and produced commercially since 1909 is considered the national beverage. Guaranà contains more caffeine than most other plants (the seeds contain as much as 7 percent caffeine).

Yerba maté, or simply maté (Ilex paraguariensis), is a small evergreen holly tree that grows in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay (the specific name means “of Paraguay”). Tea made from the dried or roasted leaves contains about 2 percent caffeine.

Recommended Reading

• Bruneton, J. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicinal Plants. Translated by Caroline K. Hatton. Paris: Lavoisier, 1995.
• Foster, S. American Ginseng, Panax quinquefolius. Botanical Series No. 308. 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1996.
• ——. Asian Ginseng, Panax ginseng. Botanical Series No. 303. 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1996.
• ——. Siberian Ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus. Botanical Series No. 302. 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1996.
• Kaptchuk, T. The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. New York: Congdon and Weed, 1983.
• Tyler, Varro. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamtom, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
• ——. The Honest Herbal. 3rd ed. Binghamtom, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
• Tyler, V. E., et al. Pharmacognosy. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1988.

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