Welcome to Day 23 of the 40 Day Herbalist Challenge! Today’s Challenge focuses on what types of herbs can be used to support energy and keep fatigue at bay, and we also explore more about one herb in particular that has captured the public imagination as a legendary plant that supports vitality and long life.
Exploring Herbs + Energy
Once sleep schedules are back in balance and you have a plan in place to help manage stress, you may find that energy levels start to rise on their own.
If you feel constantly run down and tired it’s important to see your doctor and rule out an underlying medical condition before you start working with herbs. A poorly functioning thyroid, low iron levels, immune system problems, or even heart or respiratory ailments can all sap your energy and make you feel tired.
But what if everything checks out ok and you want to explore herbs that can be used to support energy? Two types of herbs, adaptogens and tonic herbs, can play a key role in your herbal energy plan.
For today’s challenge I would like to look at one adaptogen in particular that is probably the one most associated with energy in popular culture: ginseng. We will also contemplate coffee and look at a few herbs that are often suggested for natural energy that you may not realize are just another source of caffeine in disguise! Let's start with coffee.
Is coffee bad for you?
I think a lot of people assume that healthy people don't drink coffee. I drink coffee, and people are often shocked when they find out! The pendulum seems to swing back and forth every few years in regards to whether coffee is good for us or not. Much of the older information that informed the “coffee is bad” camp may not have done a good job accounting for cigarette usage or other things that could have been clouding the studies. Black coffee does contain some useful antioxidants, but if you add a lot of sugar or flavored creamers you may be canceling some of the potential benefit. Personally, I know that too much coffee too many days in a row will give me terrible headaches. And if you are drinking it to the point that your heart is racing it’s probably safe to say you are overdoing it!
Surprising sources of caffeine
Guarana and yerba mate are two herbs that are often peddled as being a natural energy boost. And they are - in exactly the same way as coffee! In fact, guarana has even more caffeine than coffee in a same weight comparison. Although many people claim that yerba mate has a milder effect than normal tea because it contains mateine rather than caffeine, mateine is actually caffeine.
Adaptogens and Tonic Herbs for Energy
Do you remember the tonic herbs from Day 19 of the Challenge? It’s worth mentioning that Qi tonics (also known as Energy tonics) and Blood tonics are the two classes of tonic herbs that are most obviously tied in with energy levels. Qi was believed to be intricately linked to overall energy levels, so feeling weak and tired, having low immunity, and easily coming up short of breath were considered to be telltale signs that Qi needed to be strengthened and tonified. Blood tonics were used to support energy in a more nutritive way and were called for if low energy was accompanied by dizziness, paleness, and blurry vision.
Of the adaptogens that we talked about on Day 16, it’s helpful to note that eleuthero and jiaogulan can be wonderful adaptogens if you are seeking herbs to support energy because they agree with a wide range of people - usually without being overstimulating.
Now let’s take a look at ginseng!
Ginseng is one of the most common adaptogens that people will turn to when they want an herb to boost energy, mainly because it has achieved a certain amount of familiarity even in mainstream culture.
There are two types of ginseng on the market. Panax ginseng (Asian Ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng). American ginseng is often believed to be the more potent variety by traditional herbalists- a reputation that has led to overharvesting in it’s natural habitat.
The true nature of the way ginseng works in the body is much more complex than simply being “for energy”. It’s been studied as an amphoteric, meaning that it’s a balancing herb, for both the endocrine system and the immune system. It also has many ethnobotanical uses, both physical and spiritual, that indicate a wide range of ways that this herb can support health.
The root is the part of the plant that is most commonly used. Unfortunately, harvesting the root of a ginseng plant kills the whole plant, and because it can take as long as seven years before a ginseng root is ready to be harvested there is a lot of pressure on wild American ginseng that has put it on endangered plant lists in several states. It’s considered an At-Risk Plant by the conservation society United Plant Savers.
The leaf can also be used as a substitute for the roots and is now being carried by at least one herbal supplier that I know of (Mountain Rose Herbs). The leaf is expensive, but so is high quality ginseng root!
For today’s mission, take a little time to delve into the history and depth of use behind the pop culture image of ginseng. I don’t think you will regret getting to know this astonishing herb a little better!
- United Plant Savers has a great article with more links.
- County Extension expert Bob Beyfus talks about ginseng’s life cycle in this video.
- In this video, Joe Hollis at Mountain Gardens talks about cultivating ginseng.
- Here’s an article on ginseng poaching in Smithsonian magazine that’s full of interesting details about ginseng history.
All the best,