How to power up with natural and safe supplements.

Energy drinks and giant coffee cups are the norm for many people, even though studies show they are also doing damage. Luckily, several natural herbs and vitamins can provide safe, consistent energy by working with the body’s metabolic systems.

Caffeine Conundrum
The main ingredient in traditional energy drinks, synthetic caffeine, stimulates the central nervous system to fight fatigue and increase focus. In moderate doses (200–300 mg/day), caffeine can be beneficial in healthy adults. However, the high levels of synthetic caffeine in these beverages, usually three times higher than in one cup of coffee or soda, can result in harmful side effects such as rapid heart rate, rise in blood pressure, palpitations and even death (1). The situation is especially hazardous for teens and children.

In addition, withdrawal symptoms can range from unpleasant (e.g., headaches) to life-altering; in clinical studies, 13% of those experiencing caffeine withdrawal noted their symptoms (ranging from nausea to muscle aches to depression) as severe (2). Replace the dangerous high of synthetic caffeine, followed inevitably by the crash, with vitamins and herbs (including plant-based caffeine that is less jolting) that naturally boost the metabolism and provide lasting energy and alertness.

Vitamin Deficiencies
Before delving into specialty energy supplements, those suffering from chronic fatigue may want to check their B vitamin levels. B vitamins affect the body’s metabolism process and convert nutrients from food into energy. Those whose diets are lacking in B-rich foods or take certain medications such as antibiotics may be deficient and could get a boost from taking some extra B-complex vitamins (3). Coenzyme Q10 also has a role in the transfer of energy throughout the body, so those who are deficient could find relief from fatigue and weakness through supplementation (4).

Boost Energy Production
One popular energy supplements is ginseng. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) contains high levels of ginsenosides, which prevent hormone depletion in the adrenal glands. This helps the body to better manage stress (5). Ginsenosides have also been shown to strengthen the immune system. These reactions translate to benefits for improving blood circulation, offering detoxification, improving digestion and increasing mental performance and energy (5)!

To test the efficacy of ginseng on athletic performance, researchers gave rats a single dose of ginseng before observing how long they could run on a treadmill. The ginseng increased the rats’ running time by 132%; seven days of supplementation brought that increase up to 179% (6). In the end, ginseng enhanced the rats’ stress hormone responses, allowing them to run for longer.

A 2009 study monitored the effect of Panax ginseng on the energy metabolism and mitochondria of mice. Mitochondria are responsible for the production of ATP, which stores and moves energy. Researchers gave mice a dose of Asian ginseng each day for 10 days, while tracking their ATP production, as well as their levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme that works as a precursor to ATP. Ginseng significantly increased the mice’s levels of ATP and creatine kinase, leading to the conclusion that Panax ginseng improved energy by increasing the body’s energy metabolism and protecting the mitochondria from inflammation (7).

Cordyceps sinensis has a variety of benefits, including energy production because it boosts ATP levels (6).

Cordyceps may be useful to athletes or those looking to build endurance. When undergoing intense exercises, such as sprints, muscles create a buildup of lactic acid, which causes the muscles to fatigue. In studies, supplementing with Cordyceps reduces the muscles’ levels of lactic acid. In one study, mice that were given Cordyceps before swimming swam for 88% longer than they had without supplementation (6). In another study, mice given 400 mg of fermented Cordyceps sinensis once a day for seven days had an 18% increase in their liver ATP levels. These results may explain why Cordyceps is effective at eliminating fatigue and improving physical endurance (8).

Human trials have also shown Cordyceps to be successful in the energy department. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 20 healthy adults aged 50–75 were given either a placebo or 333 mg thrice daily for 12 weeks. Every day throughout the trial, the subjects cycled on a stationary bike to their maximum capacity and researchers noted their metabolic and ventilory thresholds (i.e. when their muscles were fatigued and when they felt winded, respectively). By the end of the three months, those taking the placebo showed no improvement, while those taking the Cordyceps had an average improvement of 10.5% in their metabolic thresholds and 8.5% improvement in their ventilory thresholds (9).

Energizing Drinks
Green tea contains high levels of polyphenols that, unlike other teas, remain intact during processing because the leaves are steamed and not fermented (10). The main and most powerful polyphonol in green tea is epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG, an antioxidant that can lower inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease and increase the body’s metabolism (10).

In addition, green tea may spur weight loss. Researchers fed female mice a diet containing 1, 2 or 4% green tea powder for 16 weeks. The mice in the 2% and 4% groups did not gain weight or adipose tissue, and those fed 4% green tea powder experienced a significant drop in appetite (11). Drinking green tea could increase energy levels and offer a general sense of well-being.

Not only does increased energy mean enhanced physical ability, but it also means enhanced mental ability. Green tea may help increase mental clarity and even memory. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study sought to discover if green tea extract had an impact on cognitive function. In the study, 12 healthy young men received a whey-based soft drink containing 13.75 g, 27.5 g or 0 g of green tea extract. Using brain scans, working memory connectivity between frontal and parietal brain regions was assessed once a week for four weeks. The researchers found that those in the green tea groups had increased connectivity, while those in the placebo group did not. They concluded that green tea has a beneficial effect on cognitive function, meaning that drinking it will help you to think more clearly and quickly (12).

Made by steeping the dried twigs and leaves of the mate plant in hot water, yerba mate tea is filled with antioxidants like quercetin and vitamins and minerals like potassium and zinc (13). Yerba mate, as well as green tea, is a source of natural caffeine, which may add to its stimulating powers, but it does not contain nearly as much as energy drinks or multiple cups of coffee. Thus, it does not carry the negative side effects of a caffeine overdose. Yerba mate does, however, have a secret stimulant weapon: theobromine.

Theobromine is an alkaloid also found in cocoa. It relaxes the muscles in blood vessels, allowing for better blood flow. Better blood flow leads to a better mood and a long-lasting stimulatory effect that doesn’t have the spike and crash that caffeine carries (13). Yerba mate also contains the stimulant theophylline, whose chemical structure is similar to that of caffeine. It also increases heart rate, blood flow and excites the central nervous system.

Studies have shown that yerba mate tea increases focus and alertness. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study, 12 healthy and active adults received 340 mg of caffeine, yerba mate extract and other similar ingredients or placebo. Their heart rate, blood pressure, resting energy expenditure and perceived mood states were taken at baseline and hourly for four hours. Results showed that those who took the yerba mate mix had decreased levels of perceived fatigue, and significant increases in perceived alertness, focus and energy. In the yerba mate group, the resting energy expenditure had increased from baseline for the entirety of the four hours (14).

When the body is under stress, adaptogens help it respond in a healthy way to re-establish balance. Ginseng is thought to be an adaptogen, as well as the “tonic herb,” Rhodiola rosea.

Rhodiola may help reduce fatigue and increase mental performance, especially while under stress. To test this, a group of researchers studied the effects of Rhodiola on 56 healthy sleep-deprived physicians. In this double-blind, crossover trial, participants went through three rounds of two weeks each: a test round of one dose of Rhodiola or placebo daily, a washout period, and then another round of Rhodiola or placebo. Before and after each test period, participants went through five tests to measure mental fatigue, cognitive function, memory and more. Results showed a significant improvement across all tests in the treatment group while taking the Rhodiola, and no side effects were observed (15).

Another adaptogen that may increase energy levels is maca. Maca contains 16 minerals, seven vitamins like B12 and D3, and 19 amino acids (16). Like Rhodiola, maca works by balancing the body’s systems to adapt to stressful situations, allowing the body to fight fatigue, reinforce the immune system, restore natural energy and even possibly increase libido. The recommended dose for maca is 1–1.5 g/day; experts recommend, however, that those taking maca take a one-week break every three weeks. WF

1. Medical News Today, “Energy Drinks Alter Heart Function, Study Shows,” Dec. 2013,, accessed April 2, 2014.
2. C. Reissig, “Caffeinated Energy Drinks: A Growing Problem,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 99.1 (2009): 1-10. PMC2735818/.
3. R. Griffin, “Energy Boosters: Can Supplements and Vitamins Help?” WebMD,, accessed April 3, 2014.
4. WebMD, “Coenzyme Q-10,”, accessed April 3, 2014.
5. “Health Benefits of Korean Ginseng,”, accessed April 3, 2014.
6. A. Stepovich, “Beat Fatigue and Boost ATP Production with Powerful Herbal Duo,” Life Extension Magazine, Feb. 2014,, accessed April 4, 2014.
7. L. XT et al., “Regulation on Energy Metabolism and Protection on Mitochondria of Panax Ginseng Polysaccharide,” Amer. J. Chinese Med. 37 (6), 1139–1152 (2009).
8. Dai G. et al., “CordyMax Cs-4 improves steady-state bioenergy status in mouse liver,” J. Alt. Compl. Med. 7 (3), 231–240 (2001).
9. Chen S. et al., “Effect of Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial,” J. Alt. Compl. Med., 16 (5), 585–590 (2010).
10. R. Hoffman, “EGCG: Potent Extract of Green Tea,”, accessed April 14, 2014.
11. Sayama K. et al., “Effects of Green Tea on Growth, Food Utilization and Lipid Metabolism in Mice,”, accessed Apr. 27, 2014.
12. ScienceDaily, “Green Tea Extract Boosts Your Brain Power, Especially the Working Memory, New Research Shows,”, accessed April 8, 2014.
13. Mark’s Daily Apple, “Yerba Mate: Miracle Tea or Just another Caffeine Kick?”, accessed April 17, 2014.
14. Outlaw J. et al., “Effects of Ingestion of a Commercially Available Thermogenic Dietary Supplement on Resting Energy Expenditure, Mood State and Cardiovascular Measures,” J. Int. Society of Sports Nutr. 10 (1), 25 (2013).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2014