Herbs for Health: Best Herbs for Energy

| December/January 1996

  • American ginseng
    Photography by Steven Foster
  • Coffee bean
  • Camellia sinensis, the source of green and black tea
  • The leaf, dried berries, and dried, ground fruit of bilberry
  • Bilberry (in the foreground) blankets a forest floor in the Czech Republic.
  • Cranberry
  • Thyme
  • 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.

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