Walk into any health food store these days, and it’s clear we’re in the midst of an energy crisis. Not the one that’s got TV pundits yakking about high gas prices and dependence on Mideast oil—this crisis is even closer to home, located in our very cells: Way too many of us slog through our days exhausted, worn out from the demands of work, family, home, and our own unrealistic expectations.
“We’re all trying to keep impossible schedules,” says Hyla Cass, a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind-Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time. Hence the mind-boggling array of supplements clamoring for your attention on store shelves, each claiming to contain the magic ingredient that will keep you humming along.
Should you believe any of their promises? Actually, yes.
When you look past the hype and talk to the experts, two herbs stand out as stars (rhodiola rosea and cordyceps sinensis) and another (panax ginseng) looks like a pretty good bet, too.
All are adaptogens, a class of natural substances with a unique ability to restore equilibrium throughout the body. They won’t give you a quick fix; because they affect many aspects of your body’s energy-producing system, it takes a while for the full effects to kick in. But once they do, the benefits can be substantial.
To understand how these natural remedies can bolster your vitality, it helps to understand a bit about how we can fall into a slump in the first place.
“It’s a really simple equation,” says Richard Brown, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York City and author of The Rhodiola Revolution. “If we use more energy than we take in, we end up with a deficit.” He’s not talking about energy in terms of calories here—most of us consume too many of them, but still aren’t brimming with pep. The problem is that too much stress gums up our energy-producing machinery.
Here’s how that happens: Cellular energy is generated in the mitochondria, tiny structures within each cell that turn nutrients into energy, which is stored in the form of the molecules adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate (CP). But when we’re under stress, our bodies release a surge of hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The stress response can damage the mitochondria and hamper cells’ ability to produce the ATP and CP they need—setting off a vicious cycle in which underfed cells become even more vulnerable to stress. The result? You’re running on empty.
Basically, the adaptogens help by improving cells’ production of ATP and CP. They also improve the function of other systems that affect energy, enhancing your ability to deliver oxygen to cells and reducing oxidative damage that can harm the mitochondria.
So next time you’re standing before a shelf of supplements, fuzzy-headed and in need of a pick-me-up, reach for one of these energy-boosters.
The story of rhodiola reads like a spy novel: An ancient folk remedy becomes a Cold War weapon, promoted by scientists in the former Soviet Union to boost the performance of Olympic athletes and astronauts. But now that the Cold War is over, the rest of the world is just starting to learn about rhodiola, as decades-old studies are being translated into English for the first time.
That research suggests that rhodiola’s primary mechanism of action is its ability to improve cells’ production of ATP and CP. Six groups of bioactive compounds have been identified in rhodiola, including three unique componds known as rosavins. Rhodiola also has strong antioxidant properties and stimulates the immune system.
Who it’s best for: According to Brown, the herb can help just about anyone suffering from low energy. But he thinks rhodiola might be particularly helpful for people with more serious forms of fatigue such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and seasonal affective disorder.
How to use it: Look for a pure root extract, standardized to contain at least 3 percent rosavins and .08 to 1 percent salidrosides. For most people, a dose of 200 to 400 mg per day will bring benefits. Start small and work up to a full dose over several days. Since no research has been done on doses over 400 mg per day, don’t exceed this without seeing an herbalist or doctor familiar with the herb. And while rhodiola has been used safely for years in its native regions, no human trials have verified its safety for longer than four months, so some experts recommend a one- to two-week break after four months’ use.
Side Effects: Some people have reported irritability and insomnia at very high doses (1,000 mg a day or above), but most side effects disappear when the dose is adjusted. People with bipolar disorder should be closely supervised by a doctor, as it may induce mania.
Tip: Make sure you get rhodiola rosea, not any other species.
In 1993, a team of women took the Chinese National Games by storm, setting several new world records and sparking rumors of illegal drug use. Soon their coach let the world in on their secret—a fungus that grows on the backs of Asian caterpillars called cordyceps sinensis.
Not something you’d normally think of ingesting, but many people now swear by cordyceps, also known by its traditional Chinese medicine name, dong chong. In China, cordyceps has been used for over a thousand years to improve energy, stamina, endurance, and sleep. Since those Chinese National Games, cordyceps has become popular with both professional and amateur athletes. But more recently, research has suggested that it can also help regular people fight the fatigue of everyday life.
Animal studies have demonstrated the fungus’s effects against stress-related fatigue: Mice in stressful situations that were given cordyceps had lower levels of biological markers of stress than untreated mice did. And a recent human trial of a supplement called CordyMax suggested that it helped healthy, sedentary men and women ages 40 to 70 increase aerobic capacity, reduce blood pressure, and boost endurance.
Scientists don’t fully understand how cordyceps works, but two compounds, cordycepin and cordycepic acid, are believed to be involved. Studies have shown that animals treated with cordyceps have higher levels of ATP in their livers than untreated animals. Researchers also believe that cordyceps may increase energy metabolism by reducing oxidative stress.
Who it’s best for: Anyone who feels less energetic than she’d like may benefit.
How to use it: Most practitioners recommend taking 2 to 3 grams a day with meals. (Cordyceps usually comes in capsules.) Allow two to three months to see the full benefits.
Side Effects: No side effects have been reported; however, diabetics should take care with this supplement, as it may reduce blood sugar levels. People with white-blood-cell-related cancers should steer clear.
The Runner-up: Ginseng
Legend has it that the ancient Chinese waged wars over control of the forests where this herb grew. Its use as an energy tonic dates back some 2,000 years, but these days its role as an energy booster is being challenged.
Ginseng comes in three varieties, but the panax version has been most thoroughly researched. In several studies in Asia, it’s been shown to make people feel more energetic. There’s a plausible theory to explain why it would: Ginsenosides, a class of molecules it contains, are thought to keep cortisol and other stress hormones from surging out of control, thereby preventing chronic stress from draining energy. Ginseng also relaxes blood vessels, which should maximize oxygen delivery to cells throughout the body.
But when put to the test in studies in this country, ginseng hasn’t fared so well—to say the least. “Panax has failed miserably in many trials looking at its effects on energy,” says Columbia psychiatrist Richard Brown.
But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. The problem, says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, may be that the U.S. studies used lower doses—about 200 mg per day—than the Asian research. He suspects that if doses had been several times higher, the results might have been more positive—and more in sync with ginseng’s centuries of traditional use.
Who it’s best for: Some research suggests that ginseng may be most helpful to people over 40. One study found particular anti-fatigue benefits for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a respiratory problem.
How to use it: Look for products standardized to at least 7 percent ginsenosides. Recommended dosages in the United States range from about 100 to 700 milligrams a day, taken in divided doses twice a day (just don’t take it at night, as it may interfere with sleep). You’re more likely to get results at the higher doses. Ginseng acts slowly; expect to wait a few weeks to feel the full effects.
Side Effects: Be careful about exceeding the recommended daily dosage; high doses can make you jittery and interfere with sleep. Nor should you take ginseng if you’re also taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, blood thinners, antipsychotic drugs, oral corticosteroids, diuretics, or medications for diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure. Experts also advise discontinuing ginseng at least one week before surgery, since it may act as an anticoagulant.
How to tell when it’s more than just fatigue
Low energy is a common consequence of our stressful world, but it can be a sign of a more serious health problem. How do you know the difference? Psychiatrist Richard Brown says that if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms along with a chronic lack of get-up-and-go, consult a health professional:
- Frequent infections, particularly of the respiratory system or gums
- Chronic digestive problems
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Sleeping too much or too little
- An inability to feel joy or hope