Q and A to Important Health Questions

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Enhance Your Energy

I need some suggestions for safe and natural ways to increase my energy. I try to get enough sleep, but I tend to be tired by mid-afternoon. I’m 31 years old and don’t have any known health problems. Do you have any advice?
Monterey, California

Keville responds: Low energy certainly is a common complaint, and there are numerous physical and emotional conditions that cause fatigue. You say you try to get enough sleep instead of that you do get enough. Perhaps you are too physically demanding on yourself. Many people are so busy that they try to use superhuman energy to keep up with their lives. Since you sound healthy, I’m wondering if that is your situation.

Herbal remedies are much better at correcting health problems than at making us do more than we’re designed to do. The first step to correcting low energy (before even thinking about herbs) is to make lifestyle changes. You need to also assess if you really are getting enough sleep, exercise, a wholesome diet and are keeping stress to a minimum.

It’s encouraging to hear you only become tired in mid-afternoon rather than feeling tired all the time. That means everything that comes into play to create energy is working, but the level is not being maintained. I can’t help wondering if boredom or stress, at work or from caring for your family, is overtaxing your brain or body.

Depending on your situation, I might suggest energy-promoting herbs such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), but these herbs aren’t for everyone. If your fatigue is depression-oriented, perhaps St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is in order.

Cutting back on or eliminating stimulants such as coffee, tea and other caffeine-laden herbs can improve your overall energy. Tired people typically turn to stimulants to keep them awake, but this can affect the adrenal glands and can make you more tired in the long run.

If you haven’t done so already, you might have some simple tests done to rule out disorders such as low thyroid or blood sugar, both of which can contribute to afternoon exhaustion while not displaying any other obvious symptoms. Many people, especially women, have an underactive thyroid and don’t know it. A low basal body temperature upon awakening is one clue that your thyroid may be low.

Chemical sensitivity (or any type of environmental sensitivity) also can sap your energy. Another thing to consider is whether you are properly digesting foods, such as protein, that provide your body with fuel (food allergies or skin problems may be indicators there’s a problem with digestion). If not, digestive aids such as herbal bitters are in order. Examples of these are dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and gentian (Gentiana lutea).

Khalsa responds: I think all of us have had one of those days. You woke up with some zip, but now all you want is a nap. But if this is happening every day, you’ve got trouble.

Fatigue is not a disease but a symptom with numerous causes. Stinting on sleep is the main cause of fatigue in the United States. Stress, poor eating habits, over-reliance on sweets and too little physical activity all contribute to tiredness. And, of course, there are medical reasons for fatigue: Arthritis, heart disease, obesity, depression and cancer also can diminish energy.

If your energy is sagging, it’s likely you’re suffering from adrenal exhaustion. The adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate energy levels. One secret to maintaining high energy is to use herbal medicines that improve the function of the adrenals and other hormone-producing glands.

Blood sugar balance might be a factor in the type of fatigue you’re describing. The body has a complex system of managing blood sugar that involves many organs in the body, primarily the pancreas, adrenals, liver and muscle tissue. This mechanism is so complex that it cannot be targeted with simple measures. It takes getting healthy over the long term, with a good diet, deep and restorative sleep, exercise, stress management and slow-acting, stamina-enhancing tonic herbs.

The use of tonic herbs (also called adaptogens) is the single biggest difference between how we handle our lifetime health plan and how people in every other continent handle theirs: They use ’em, we don’t. Adaptogens work best after three months at a moderate dose. They regulate hormone levels and protect against the destructive effects of chronic stress. Good choices, besides the two herbs detailed below, include eleuthero and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), which is described in detail on Page 52.

Asian ginseng increases physical working capacity in humans in many ways. Ginseng may help you feel more energized by increasing physical and mental efficiency, regulating blood sugar levels and helping to improve the body’s use of oxygen.

In a 1996 study published in Phytotherapy Research, a preparation of Asian ginseng, with vitamins and minerals, was tested on 232 people who complained of daily fatigue. Those taking the supplement had improved energy, better concentration and less anxiety compared to those who took only the placebo. Take 4,000 to 6,000 mg (in capsules) daily.

Fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), also known as he shou wu in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is used to treat premature aging, weakness, angina pectoris, premature hair loss and graying, and impotence. The herb also helps build a strong immune system. Use 4 to 8 grams, in capsules or tea, daily.

Managing Melasma

I am a 46-year-old female with a skin disorder called melasma. I have had this problem not even a year and have seen a dermatologist. He prescribed some cream, and it has lightened a little but hasn’t faded the brown patches to a point where I am satisfied. Can you give me more information on this problem and advise some herbs?

Keville responds: Melasma refers to any type of skin discoloration, so it is a broad term encompassing many conditions. It occurs in the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) when too much melanin is produced and deposits itself in the skin.

The standard Western herbalism treatment to reverse skin discoloration is lemon juice, which has long been recommended to remove freckles and age spots. It’s best to apply it concentrated by simply cutting a lemon and rubbing on the juice. Do this several times daily, if possible. It can take weeks and usually works no better than the cream prescribed by your dermatologist, which probably contains the chemical hydroquinone as a skin-bleaching agent, possibly combined with Retin-A to act as a skin peel. Lemon causes a photosensitivity skin discoloration reaction in some people, so don’t expose the area to the sun after applying it. You also can try any of several products sold at health-food stores designed to eliminate brown spots.

Of course, it’s always best to address a problem’s root cause. The good news is that discoloration of the skin often doesn’t represent a real health problem, only a cosmetic one. It was good you saw a dermatologist to rule out anything serious. Unfortunately, herbs don’t tend to work as effectively for cosmetic issues as they do for more serious health conditions.

The source of your condition might be female hormones. Melasma can be seen when hormone production is altered by taking birth control pills or during pregnancy. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this condition occurs in up to 70 percent of pregnant women. At age 46, it could be related to being premenopausal, and if so, be addressed with herbs such as black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense).

Herbal supplements high in gamma-linolenic acid, such as evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis), help balance hormones and alleviate many skin problems. Evening primrose also aids the immune system. Skin darkening can be caused by oxidation, so taking antioxidants may help. Smoking cigarettes and excessive sun exposure contribute to oxidation in the body, so be sure to avoid them.

Antioxidant supplements to try include grape seed extract (100 mg daily), vitamin C (500 to 1,000 mg daily), vitamin E (400 to 800 IU daily) and beta-carotene (20,000 IU daily). Be sure to eat a produce- and whole grain-rich diet to ensure you’re getting these vitamins from your food, too.

Kathi Keville is the director of the American Herb Association (www.ahaherb.com) and the author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996) and Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG, 1999). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions.

Khalsa responds: Melasma is a common disorder involving the formation of varying shades of irregular-shaped brown patches on both sides of the face, especially on the forehead, nose, cheeks, upper lip, chin and on other sun-exposed areas. Melasma is stubborn to treat, as are all skin hyperpigmentation conditions. Exposure to sun and estrogen makes it worse.

Medically, melasma is treated with topical medications, which, if effective, act slowly. Studies have demonstrated that treating melasma with chemical peels and a bleaching agent is safe and effective, but this alone does not cure the condition.

Ayurvedic practitioners consider sulfur to be one of the premier detoxifying remedies for skin conditions of this nature. Use about 500 mg of sulfur per day, as tolerated. I use a mixture that contains cayenne, cumin seed, flowers of sulfur (powdered mineral sulfur), gingerroot and turmeric. Sulfur can cause a little loose stool and intestinal gas, so it’s good to work into the dose slowly.

Recently, a sulfur-containing compound has become available as a dietary supplement. MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is an antioxidant with remarkable skin-enhancing properties. It softens scars and makes skin more flexible, as well as lightening melasma. It’s quite effective and works rapidly in comparison to drug treatment. The dose is 6 to 8 grams daily, in capsules. MSM also may cause gas, although it’s less likely to than sulfur. Reduce the dose if gas occurs.

In general, natural healing proponents draw a connection between the skin and liver function. To address this situation, I often rely on Phyllanthus amarus, an Asian herb that enhances liver function and has remarkable benefits for the skin in general. I use it for skin discoloration maladies. The dose can be quite high, and the effect may depend on the dose. Use up to 10 grams daily, in capsules.

Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; fax (785) 274-4305; or e-mail us at letters@herbs forhealth.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential.

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