Herbs that increase energy levels are categorized into three overlapping groups; stimulants, tonics, and adaptogens. Today I’m highlighting the benefits and healing properties of these herbs. And the focus is on how these amazing herbs, and fungi, can replenish energy stores, regulate hormones, and strengthen the body, to cope with the many unavoidable stressors you deal with every day.
Why do you get fatigued? What is ‘vital energy’? Can allopathic medicines restore vitality? Or are herbs that increase energy levels more effective?
Stressors in today’s world play upon your psychological, emotional, and physical states. Are these fickle feelings that you can just “snap out of”? Are you powerless to fight fatigue and low energy with positivity and organic wholefoods? Or do you take charge and strengthen your systems, regulate your hormones, and repair neuroreceptors with the help of herbs and natural remedies? Where do you place your faith? Are there some things herbs can’t rectify? I think not!
Sometimes (for various reasons) we are faced with the dilemma of having to choose between proven medical cures (in the form of anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotics) and supplements that contain extracts of herbs, fungi, and roots. Both meds and supplements claim to do all sorts of miraculous things. The difference is the one is strictly regulated and comes with a long list of side effects. The other is often not FDA approved but has few or no side effects. Although they may clash with certain prescribed drugs.
So let’s unpack the goods on what adaptogens, stimulants, and tonics are and why the claims made are not as far-fetched as they sound. Which herbs really can increase energy levels, improve immunity, boost mental acuity, and restore hormonal balance? And do the herbs that increase energy levels still work when the active ingredients are isolated and added to tonics and supplements?
What Causes Low Energy Levels and Fatigue?
You get tired for many reasons. Being tired from a late night, a heavy training session or a day of hard labor is a temporary type of fatigue, one that can be fixed with a stimulant or a good rest. But fatigue caused by stress is harder to shake and severely impairs our ability to function properly. Chronic stress can lead to depression, exhaustion, and even thyroid problems. Stress can upset your digestion, lower your immunity, make you tired, and deplete your vital energy.
Stress fatigue has many causes. And most of us know that stress can be physical, mental, environmental, and emotional. Fatigue left untreated depletes the body of vital energy and instead of repairing the body, from daily stresses that are quite natural, it remains in a “fight or flight” situation, and cortisol levels stay elevated. This interrupts other delicate hormonal processes and eventually, your body and mind are so tired you have no energy left to even think or move some days.
Fatigue and depleted energy levels get caused by:
- Too much exercise
- Bad diet
- Recovering from illness
- Cell phones
- Frenetic lifestyles
- Poor sleep
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Certain medications
- Chronic stress – ongoing stress of daily living coupled with unresolved childhood traumas and childhood
- Toxic stress – unprocessed trauma
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss
- Drug addiction
- Mood swings
Over time, the constant stress and elevated cortisol levels affect:
- insulin sensitivity,
- insulin resistance,
- menstrual cycles,
- sleep patterns,
- leptin production,
- and cognitive function.
In other words, the whole body, and all its systems, get affected by stress. Stress leads to low energy levels and disorders of the nervous, endocrinal, and circulatory systems. Stress can even lead to heart disease, cancer, and eventually death.
What is Vital Energy?
The essence of our energy is called ‘vital energy’. In the West, vital energy is construed as vigor, life, spirit, passion, zest. In India, it is referred to as ‘prana’. In Asia, it is called chi. Vital energy is the life force that keeps not just your body working, but also gives you a positive outlook and an elevated mood. It is spiritual, mental, and physical. And when you are healthy, this energy flows.
When you get run down or sick, the prana or chi gets blocked. Or it flows to where there is a shortage in the body. Not replenishing your body correctly sees your body systems borrowing from this ‘vital energy’. Eventually, an imbalance or deficiency occurs and you get sick, depressed, fatigued, or all three.
The energy you use to play sports, or just move about each day, is fueled by the food you eat. But when you don’t eat right and you experience stress, the combination causes your energy levels to sag.
It’s always good to eat well. Food is most definitely our medicine! But sometimes our bodies become so run down, we need a boost. Adaptogens do this job beautifully. Why? Because they work with the body, are generally safe, and seldom have side-effects. Some do clash with prescribed drugs so always check with your health practitioner before taking herbal treatment with drugs.
When you use adaptogens you are not only benefitting from the active compounds, you’re also harnessing the energetic benefits these mysterious plants have.
Adaptogenic Herbs That Increase Energy Levels
Unlike many common herbs that we grow and use, many adaptogens are endemic to unique locations or need a specific environment to grow in. Often adaptogens are plants that grow in harsh conditions and it’s the harsh environment that allows these plants to develop the phenolic compounds that protect the plants from the adverse climatic conditions.
Growing an adaptogen outside its natural environment may yield different chemical compositions to plants in their natural habitat. You can’t just grow adaptogens in your backyards. Sometimes you can but often not. Rooibos is a perfect example of this. (Read my Rooibos article here.) It also means that when you buy these herbs that increase energy levels you need to make sure they are ethically sourced from a sustainable crop.
What Are Adaptogens? And How Do They Work?
Adaptogens are plants, roots, and fungi that act as stress regulators, immune-modulators, and hormone balancers. Adaptogens normalize body functions and protect against environmental and emotional stressors.
But most importantly, adaptogens alleviate fatigue and restore vitality (which is what we get from having high levels of vital energy within us!)
List of Adaptogenic Plants
The following list of adaptogenic, stimulating, revitalizing plants can all be found online. See below for my recommendations. You can buy adaptogens from health food shops and traditional medicine shops. Or get them from Indian and Asian spice markets.
Please make sure the products you buy are Fairtrade, carry out sound manufacturing processes, and are sourced from sustainable crops. “Wild-harvested” is a buzzword that concerns me greatly. Traditional herbalists, shamans, and witchdoctors are often blamed for being part of the problem when indigenous “muti” plants get exploited and threatened by over-harvesting. But it’s consumers that are the true threat. So for your own conscience check for these things.
Possibly the most revered, and overexploited, of these, is ginseng.
Here is a short video clip about ginseng:
1. Ginseng – The Original – Panax Ginseng
Panax is a Greek word meaning “All Healing”.
Ginseng is a fascinating plant used in Asian and CTM (Chinese Traditional Medicine). Many herbs that increase energy levels are called ginseng. The word is synonymous with vitality, rejuvenation, and longevity. You get Brazilian Ginseng, American ginseng. Peruvian Ginseng, Siberian Ginseng, Red Korean Ginseng, white ginseng, and more!
The original “Chinese” ginseng is Panax ginseng. The active compounds are called ginsenosides. Records of using Korean Red Ginseng goes back over 1,000 years. Actual use, much further. When this herb is prepared the traditional way it:
- recovers vital energy
- alleviates fatigue,
- strengthens systems compromised by stress,
- and protects from environmental stressors.
It is also a:
- powerful immune enhancer,
- immune activator and
Red ginseng is prepared by steaming and then drying. When it is dried without steaming, white ginseng is produced. Both white and fresh ginseng have different chemical compositions compared with Red ginseng. It is the way the plant is harvested and prepared that gives it the added boost from active compounds. These amino sugars, called arginine-fructose-glucose, are acidic polysaccharides. The heating process transforms the fresh ginseng into the red. And it’s the polysaccharides that give ginseng its powers of longevity and restoration. See Article 4, down below in “Further Reading”.
Sadly, through demand, the processes used today do not always meet the strict regulations that were implemented in the past, when the government controlled all the production of ginseng. In CTM it is important to harvest at certain times and use different ratios of the root (main and lateral) during the preparation. It is the whole process, not just the plant, that gives ginseng its ability to rebalance chi and lend support to the body systems where needed.
Today the world requires 80,000 tonnes of ginseng per annum. As such, it is commercially cultivated these days. It takes 6 years before the root is ready to harvest.
A typical dose is 100-400mg of ginseng root extract.
2. American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolius – found in Canada and the US
Native Americans used this perennial herb as a stimulant, to treat fertility problems, and to cure headaches, fevers, and blood pressure.
It is illegal to harvest American ginseng from the wild. Special permits are given on occasion. It is threatened and therefore protected. You are allowed to grow your own though.
American ginseng is considered “cooler” than Asian ginseng (Chinese, Korean, Japanese). It works well for mild depression, chronic stress, age-related memory loss, and brain fog.
3. Japanese Ginseng – Panax japonicus – Japan
Similar to Korean Red ginseng. Studies show that P.japonicus is an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and hepatoprotective. It is an inhibitor of pancreatic lipase. This means it has the potential to assist in weight loss. It has the ability to rectify alcohol-induced liver damage and helps people with liver fibrosis.
4. Chinese Ginseng – Panax notoginseng – Southern China and Korea – black rugged roots
Similar to Red Korean ginseng. Chinese ginseng shows much promise as an effective remedy for Coronary Heart Disease, or Coronary artery disease (CAD).
5. Siberian Ginseng – Eleutherococcus senticosus – Wu Cha Seng
Siberian ginseng contains eleutherosides as opposed to ginsenosides. It is used to replenish and revitalize after an illness. It also:
- Balances blood sugar,
- Improves stamina and immunity,
- Reduces jet lag, and
- Reduces rheumatism.
6. Peruvian ginseng – Lepidium meyenii – Maca root
Maca reduces stress, boosts fertility, and increases stamina. It is a staple part of the Peruvian diet. Maca is another adaptogen that is exploited and threatened in the wild because of its value. Regulations are in place to protect the wild maca from over-harvesting. But this does not deter unscrupulous poachers. It is grown commercially but has to grow in certain conditions at certain altitudes.
Maca is known as an aphrodisiac because it regulates hormones like testosterone, supports prostate health, builds muscle, supports the immune system, and increases endurance.
Maca belongs to the same family as cauliflower, broccoli, mustard, kale, and watercress.
7. Brazilian ginseng – Hebanthe eriantha – Suma
Suma’s active compounds are called pfaffosides. Suma is similar to the other types of ginseng because it is a hormone regulator and boosts vitality. It is often used by men to improve sexual stamina and fertility. It also helps for:
- Regulating stress hormones
- Boosting immunity
- Protecting the body from environmental and emotional stressors.
Studies show that Suma contains “antineoplastic (anticancer), chemopreventive (cancer preventive), and antiproliferative (inhibit cell proliferation) actions (da Silva et al., 2015).”
Like its unrelated cousins, Suma works on a long list of ailments ranging from asthma and anemia to fatigue, circulation problems, depression, sexual dysfunction, and more.
8. Ashwagandha – Withania somnifera – Indian ginseng – Winter Cherry
Ashwagandha is possibly the most well known Ayurvedic herb in the West. In South Africa, this plant is almost as widely known as it is in India. We use it as decoctions, infusions, and tinctures. The whole root is used, fresh and dry. Only the soft outer cortex is used when the roots are older and woody.
In Southern Africa it’s used for:
- Fevers, infections, colds, and flu
- General ill health and debility
- Abdominal pains
- Typhus and typhoid
In other parts of the world, this adaptogenic wonder herb is also used for women’s health, animal health, skin conditions (applied topically), and as a sedative, and tonic.
It is taken for:
Ashwagandha has the following properties:
Isolated withanolides have shown both immuno-suppressing and immuno-stimulating effects but aqueous extracts taken from the entire root show stronger immuno-stimulating effects. It enhances memory, alleviates anxiety, and is excellent at restoring cognitive function and hormonal imbalances.
9. Jiaogulan – Gymnostemma pentaphyllum – Southern ginseng – Thailand
Jiaogulan is used to treat high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It improves circulation, increases endurance, and stamina. It also improves immunity, heart function, and memory. It’s an excellent protector against environmental stress.
10. Gotu Kola – Centella asiatica – Pennywort (sometimes erroneously called Brahmi – Bacopa monnieri)
Gotu kola is yet another mind-blowingly efficient and versatile adaptogen. Shockingly, in the West, people spray poisons, and spend small fortunes, trying to eradicate this anti-depressant, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory Ayurvedic powerhouse. And then they spend another small fortune on doctor’s fees and prescriptions for synthetic drugs with a long list of horrendous side effects. That’s the “civilized” world for ya!
Gotu kola is used worldwide. It is used extensively in Ayurveda and CTM. It can be eaten fresh, taken as a tincture or infusion, or used when dried. The leaves and trailing stems are taken. This is one of the few tonic plants that don’t use the root as the main component. It is eaten like spinach
The triterpenes in Centella have sedative and mild tranquilizing effects. The dry leaves are taken as snuff, in South Africa and the sedative effects are felt after half an hour or so. It is a brain tonic and has potent anti-stress and anti-anxiety benefits. The extracts have GABA antagonistic activity. This means it can treat a long list of disorders associated with the nervous system, as well as negative moods in women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). It also heals peptic ulcers.
Gotu kola has the following properties:
11. Tulsi – Holy Basil – Ocimum sanctum
Tulsi is a revered herb in India. In some branches of Hinduism, she is believed to be the earthly form of the goddess, Tulsi Devi, a devotee of Lord Krishna. She was married to Shalagram, the earthly form of Vishnu! And as such, Tulasi is also known as Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife! It is believed that the Tulsi plant is the gateway between heaven and earth! Food cannot be properly offered without a tulsi leaf and the morning rituals include combobulating a Tulsi plant. The backstory of this magical, auspicious plant is captivating. In other religions, it is believed she is the plant incarnation of Lord Krishna. Plants are SO interesting!
As a medicine, she is adaptogenic and is most commonly taken as a tea. The leaves and flowers are used.
Here is an extract from “Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A Herb For All Reasons”
“Tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. Tulsi has been found to protect organs and tissues against chemical stress from industrial pollutants and heavy metals, and physical stress from prolonged physical exertion, ischemia, physical restraint, and exposure to cold and excessive noise. Tulsi has also been shown to counter metabolic stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure, and lipid levels, and psychological stress through positive effects on memory and cognitive function and through its anxiolytic and anti-depressant properties. Tulsi’s broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, which includes activity against a range of human and animal pathogens, suggests it can be used as a hand sanitizer, mouthwash, and water purifier as well as in animal rearing, wound healing, the preservation of foodstuffs, and herbal raw materials and traveler’s health.”
12. Adaptogenic Fungi
Cordyceps. Shiitake. Reishi. Chaga. These are mushrooms, so strictly speaking, not herbs. But they still deserve a mention because they are adaptogens. Each one has different chemical compositions but they do similar things. Adaptogenic fungi have the following properties:
- Immune boosting
- Relieves stress and anxiety
- Promotes good sleep
- Strengthens the liver, heart, and lungs.
- May also be preventative against cancer and tumors (add study)
Stimulating Herbs That Increase Energy Levels
What Are Stimulants? And Are They Safe?
Adaptogens are stimulants. They have the ability to regulate stress and boost immunity (immuno-stimulating). But some herbs are stimulants without being adaptogenic. These herbs have a different effect on your body. Often the effects of a stimulant are felt fast, whereas, with adaptogens, it sometimes takes a bit longer to see an increase in energy levels. This is because adaptogens are giving your body the support it needs to heal itself, through regulating stress hormones.
When you take a stimulant it will sometimes cause the stress hormones to be overactive (too much caffeine, for example). But when we need a “pick me up” fast, the following herbs will do the trick, efficiently and safely.
Disclaimer: Abusing any plant or medicine will have adverse effects. Traditional and indigenous peoples who have utilized these amazing stimulants did so with responsibility and for practical reasons. These same tribes would use different herbs during festivals and ceremonies to get a bit “wasted”. But in their daily living, they used stimulants to keep them going. Often fetching wood and water was so strenuous that these herbs helped with the physical exertion needed to perform everyday tasks.
List of Stimulant Herbs
These herbs are not adaptogens but they contain phytocompounds that have effective stimulating properties. Stimulating herbs work on the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, and the stimulating neurotransmitter dopamine, which works with serotonin, GABA, and endorphins. They bring pleasure and increase energy but too much of these herbs will cause us to “crash and burn” eventually. And we’ll need the adaptogens above to restore our energy levels, and body systems!
- Coca – Erythroxylum coca
- Guarana – Paullinia cuppana
- Khat – Catha edulis
- Coffee – Coffea arabica
- Tea – Camellia sinensis
- Ephedra – Ephedra sinica
- Yohimbe – Pausinystalia johimbe
- Chocolate – Theobroma cacao
Tonic Herbs That Increase Energy Levels
Tonics are usually concoctions that are derived from several different herbs that all fortify and strengthen. A tonic is generally safe to take daily. Tonic herbs are adaptogens and stimulants.
Their job is to:
- Build energy
- Support the immune, nervous, digestive, endocrine, and circulatory systems.
- Boost energy levels
- Promote cognitive functions like memory recall and
Tonic herbs are often blends of various herbs that get taken daily over a long period of time. They are safe and do not interfere with the body. They only assist and support. Unlike stimulants, tonics don’t give you a quick spike of energy followed by a sharp crash.
Herbs used in tonics include:
- Gotu kola
- Red raspberry leaves
- Black cohosh root
1. An Approach To The Concept Of Tonic: Suggested definitions and historical aspects
2. A Preliminary Review Of Studies On Adaptogens: Comparison of Their Bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide
3. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity
4. Characterization of Korean Red Ginseng
5. An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda
6. Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A Herb for All Reasons
A Recap on Herbs That Increase Energy Levels
Adaptogens and stimulants are tonic herbs that increase energy both in the mind and body. These herbs lift moods, boost stamina and endurance, support the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. They reduce stress by balancing hormones and helping the body to recover from stressful situations that create the fight or flight syndrome. Stress spikes stress hormones and inhibit the hormonal activity of other essential hormones. Insulin, cholesterol, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone are only 5 of over 200 hormones in your body that all need to be in sync for optimal health.
Living in a stress-free world is impossible. Our bodies are not designed to handle the type of stressors we encounter daily. So the need for adaptogens is real. Prevention is better than cure! Every time!
If you get into the habit of supplementing with adaptogens you are getting ahead of your health and, in the long run, doing your body, mind, soul, and bank balance a favor. Adaptogenic supplements may not be the cheapest but it is still far cheaper than going to hospital and undergoing surgery or getting prescribed medications.
Ideally, you should start your day with a smoothie and add your adaptogenic herbs to it. If you are like me you’ll enjoy making a blend of powders and using that for 1-3 months. After that, it is time to change it up. Use different herbs or take a complete break.
I hope you found this article informative and helpful. Below is a list of herbs that increase energy levels, available online. If you take powders, find out how much you need daily and make sure the quantity of the extract is substantial. If you take capsules, again, check to see if you will be getting the recommended dosage every day.
Where to find herbs that increase energy levels online
Tulsi – loose leaf tea (fairtrade)
Guarana – powder (great for smoothies)