Lack of energy is a constant theme in the lives of countless
Americans. For many, tiredness is so routine that they accept
it as a natural state. Family and work by themselves
are exhausting; unexpected demands or a restless night can deplete
the remaining energy reserves. What is to be done? The
American answer is caffeine. Pick your flavor: coffee (then more
coffee), energy drinks (which flavor and how tall?), sodas (nothing
beats caffeine plus sugar!) and the list goes on. The idea is
that, if the metabolism is flagging whip it harder or, better yet,
throw in a quick burst of energy from a simple carbohydrate.
Caffeinate, crash, repeat (perhaps several times throughout the
day), then start over the next morning.
And start over we do. Ninety percent of all American adults
ingest caffeine daily. It is the go-to stimulant of choice, so much
so that for a while Wrigley was producing eight stick chewing
gum packs each stick of which contained as much caffeine as
half a cup of coffee. To be sure, it is not as if caffeine has no benefits.
After all, people consume caffeine mostly to improve productivity
and related outcomes, not for pleasure. But what if the
lack of energy is really just the body's response to a lack of rest
(sound sleep usually is an early casualty of too much caffeine)
and to a failure to recover from demands placed on it day in
and day out? Under such circumstances, the daily caffeine fix
is always needed and creates the conditions of its own demand
along with downsides. Fortunately, it is possible to get off this
Researchers have often wondered why it is that tea, despite
its caffeine content, tends to relax individuals without making
them drowsy. Similarly, those engaging in meditation practices
may drink tea to dispel mental sluggishness and yet not
become mentally agitated, as is typical with the consumption
of too much coffee. Black and green teas give somewhat different
answers. Black tea, for instance, contains one or more
compounds that open up the peripheral circulation and also
reduce blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Likewise,
blood platelet activation, which is linked to blood clotting and to
the risk of heart attack, was lower in the tea drinkers in a clinical
trial and this group reported a greater degree of relaxation in
the recovery period after a stressful task.1 This is good news for
the 65 percent of adult Americans who suffer from daily stress.
L-Theanine, found in green and oolong teas, is more complicated.
In one trial in which caffeine (250 milligrams) increased
self-rated alertness along with jitteriness and blood pressure,
theanine (200 milligrams) antagonized the effect of caffeine
on blood pressure, but did not significantly affect jitteriness,
alertness or other aspects of mood.2 At a lower level of caffeine
consumption (150 milligram), theanine (250 milligrams) actually
further improved the normal cognitive benefits of caffeine.3
Affects on stress per se also are found with theanine, with the
degree of benefit depending on conditions and individuals.
Various tests have demonstrated the anti-stress effects of
L-theanine. One of the more revealing of these experiments examined
brain wave patterns after the ingestion of theanine. This
research built on the knowledge that humans produce specific
patterns of electrical pulses on the surface of the brain that mirror
brain states. The four primary wave patterns are known as
the alpha, beta, delta and theta (a, b, d and q) brain waves, representing,
respectively, 1) relaxed wakefulness, 2) excitation, 3)
sound sleep, and dozing sleep.4
In one experiment, 50 women volunteers (aged 18–22 years
old) were divided into high-anxiety and low-anxiety groups. Each
group was given either 50 or 200 mg theanine in water once a
week. Their brain waves were measured during the 60 minutes
after ingestion. The measurements were repeated twice during
a two-month test period. The results were a marked increase in
a-waves starting roughly 40 minutes after ingestion. Researchers
concluded that theanine rapidly enters the system when ingested
and that it heightens the index of the brain wave that is
known to be linked to a state of relaxed wakefulness. Researchers
also have explored whether the response to theanine might
be influenced by the level of anxiety found in test subjects. As
might be expected, the greater degree of change is found in
those manifesting high anxiety.
Theanine appears to protect against certain so-called "excitotoxins."
It modulates the motor-stimulation associated with
caffeine and it inhibits some of the actions of norepinephrine in
the central nervous system, for instance. In tests with gerbils,
theanine protected against the destruction of neurons induced
ischemia, a condition that can lead to a rapid increase in glutamate
in neurons and result in the death of these cells. Theanine
taken in the evening may support improved sleep quality not by
sedation, but through anxiolysis.5 The other herbs mentioned below also tend to improve sleep quality at least in part through
the same mechanism.
Saffron for Replacing Jitters with Emotional Balance
Although small amounts of caffeine, meaning usually less than
400 milligrams per day, for the vast preponderance of individuals
provides mostly an upside with little downside, excessive
caffeine can lead to anxiety, physical and emotional "jitters," as
well as insomnia. For many, black, oolong and green teas are
more gentle alternatives to the concentrated caffeine of coffee,
yet coffee is a preferred beverage for many. Moreover, caffeine
is added to so many other pick-me-ups that individuals often
are unaware of how much they are consuming throughout the
day. Several herbs and spices are useful remedies to this excess.
Saffron is one of these.
Saffron is far more than merely a spice that gives color to
rice and paella along with a distinctive aromatic signature. Crocins
are the source of saffron's coloring properties, whereas its
aromatic aspects come from picrocrocins and safranal. Medical
texts from ancient Egypt, Persia and the Roman Empire attest
to healing properties, including pain relief and calming effects.
Similarly, Chinese and Indian healing systems ascribe these
and more benefits to saffron. Other healing aspects include the
treatment of coughs, better movement of nutrients into tissues
and aphrodisiac qualities.
At least eleven clinical studies have evaluated saffron for its
impact on aspects of emotional balance, such as anxiety and
depression. In comparative clinical trials, saffron intake after
one or two weeks has proven to be comparable in efficacy to
the drugs fluoxetine and imipramine. The mechanism of action
seems to be the regulation of neurotransmitters.6 Other conditions
that have been explored clinically with saffron include
erectile dysfunction, vision, Alzheimer's disease and cosmetic
benefits. In general, it is thought that there is a complementary
action from more than twenty-five active compounds in saffron
to yield the demonstrated clinical effects. One special extract
that has been extensively clinically tested gives benefits when
ingested at the level of 30 milligrams per day.
Lemon Balm's Calming Effects, Sleep Benefits
Another useful traditional herb is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.). Since the 19th Century, it has been recognized as being soothing during stress and anxiety. Lemon balm contains hydroxycinnamic and rosmarinic acids. Studies have shown that lemon balm consumption increases sleep quality, reduces stress and improves mood.7 Clinical trials have demonstrated the effects of lemon balm extract on cognitive health. Lemon balm improves cognitive performance by enhancing memory and accelerating the visual information processing.8,9 One high quality and tested extract is recommended at an intake level of 600 milligrams per day.
Blue Dogbane Is a Bane for Stress
Apocynum venetum L., commonly known as Luobuma in China, is a traditional and popular Chinese herb with a long history of use as a medicine and tea, both in Chinese and Uygur medicine. In fact, Apocynum venetum L. is mentioned in the ancient Dun Huang Manuscripts (written in the 5th to early 11th centuries A.D.) as a powerful longevity tonic. It especially is useful in cases of hypertension and anxiety.10 Among its other notable benefits is support for sleep. According to the official Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the herb calms the liver, soothes the nerves, treats palpitations and improves insomnia. As a tea in China, it is used especially for the elderly as a sleep aid and to reduce high blood pressure. Indeed, a commercial Luoboma "antihypertensive tea" is available commercially in the western province of China. Care should be taken to not confuse it with Indian Hemp (I), Apocynum androsaemifolium, poacynum pictum, I, or the blue dogbane native to Texas. Chinese White and Pink Dogbanes are inferior substitutes often presented as the same plant.
Anxiety afflicts more than forty million Americans, hence is hardly a minor issue. As already explored above, caffeine and "energy" drinks aggravate anxiety, jitteriness and blood pressure. The exact mechanisms of blue dogbane's action, which likely are multiple, only partially have been elucidated. For instance, the herb inhibits superoxide generated from both the NADPH oxidase and the xanthine/xanthine oxidase systems in the arteries. The upshot of these actions is that there is more nitric oxide (NO) available locally to relax the vessels.11 Rather than taking multiple grams of L-arginine to provide a building block precursor for the production NO, just a little bit of this herb prevents the excessive destruction of NO and achieves the same benefit. The vasculature dilation effects of the blue dogbane extract, including in the brain, can be considerable. The benefits for relaxation, cortisol and stress reduction are significant. Clinical work indicates that the extract induces deeper sleep, meaning that it makes sleep more restful.12
An interesting finding is that Apocynum venetum L. is a particularly rich source of isoquercitrin, the more active and much better absorbed form of the antioxidant quercetin. Some research suggests that Apocynum venetum L. is a safe alternative to St. John's Wort. Suggested consumption of the extract depends on its quality and the condition in mind; 50–150 milligrams represents typically suggested dosages.12
Most Westerners have heard of ginseng and think that the Chinese name applies to only one species. However, in fact there are various "ginsengs" in Chinese medicine, each displaying particular benefits. Gynostemma pentaphyllum is "southern ginseng"; it also is called jiaogulan. It is considered to have powerful antioxidant and adaptogenic effects purported to increase longevity.13 The plant belongs to a family that includes cucumbers, gourds, and melons—its fruit is a small purple inedible gourd. It is little known in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) because TCM is largely based on the dried materials that could be transported to the Imperial Court of the Chinese Emperors in Beijing. Research indicates significant effects of southern ginseng in the areas of blood glucose, improved insulin sensitivity, improved HbA1c (indicating improved glucose control in diabetics and reduced glycation) as well as other benefits.14
Although local Chinese traditions long have reported adaptogenic effects, the impact of jiaogulan on stress and related conditions only recently has been explored by Western allopathic research. Nevertheless, a body of animal trials currently backs traditional uses to support human resilience to physical and mental challenges. For instance, a 2012 paper reports that oral administration of the ethanol extract of Gynostemma pentaphyllum can increase host defense in immunocompromised situations such as stress-induced immunosuppression.15,16 A report from the next year indicates that there are anxiolytic effects of an herbal ethanol extract from Gynostemma pentaphyllum in mice after exposure to chronic stress.17 In yet another model of chronic stress and related anxiety disorders in mice, gypenosides, proposed active ingredients in the herb, improved stress-induced anxiety disorders by modulating brain dopamine and serotonin activities and corticosterone levels.18 (Corticosterone in mice plays the same role as cortisol in humans.) Finally, a recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial lasting 12 weeks demonstrated that an extract of Gynostemma pentaphyllum led to significant decreases in total abdominal fat area, body weight, body fat mass, percent body fat, and body mass index. (BMI).19 It is likely that more than one mechanism of action was important in bringing about these clinical results.
Do not forget magnesium! An estimated 68 percent of Americans
do not consume the recommended daily allowance for
magnesium. Some attribute this to modern dietary patterns,
such as a failure to consume green vegetables and less refined
grains. Others have observed that reduced magnesium levels
can be attributed to food refining, processing and the use of industrial
fertilizers, which typically lack magnesium. Magnesium
deficiency has been associated with poor sleep quality, muscle
tension and anxiety. Raising tissue levels with oral supplementation
of magnesium may promote more restful sleep and relaxation.
Preferred forms include magnesium glycerophosphate, magnesium malate and magnesium threonate. Each of
these forms exhibits special characteristics based on its ligand.
Better results with magnesium supplementation are realized
with chronic usage to build up tissue stores.
Too often, the demand for more energy really is just a symptom
of inadequate rest and poor quality sleep. The majority of
adults is chronically stressed and sleep deprived. Good sleep
affects alertness, energy, creativity, indeed, mental and physical
performance and productivity in general. The common
solution to being tired and under-performing is to consume
caffeine in the form of coffee and energy drinks. There are alternatives,
however, to the "caffeinate, crash, repeat" model
of daily existence. Some of these alternatives support the
positive effects of caffeine while mitigating the side effects.
Others moderate jitteriness and "wired" effects of stimulants
by reducing the stress hormone release found with too much
stimulation. A common benefit of this approach is to improve
the ability to sleep without forcing slumber and to make the
time spent sleeping more restful.
- Steptoe A, Gibson EL, Vuononvirta R, Williams ED, Hamer M, Rycroft JA, Erusalimsky JD, Wardle J. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2007 Jan;190(1):81-9. Epub 2006 Sep 30. Erratum in: Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2007 Jan;190(1):91.
- Rogers PJ, Smith JE, Heatherley SV, Pleydell-Pearce CW. Time for tea: mood, blood pressure and cognitive performance effects of caffeine and theanine administered alone and together. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2008 Jan;195(4):569-77.
- Haskell CF, Kennedy DO, Milne AL, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. The effects of L-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood. Biol Psychol. 2008 Feb;77(2):113-22.
- Juneja LR, Chu D-C, Okubo T, Nagato Y, Yokogoshi H. L-Theanine––a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans. Trends in Food Science & Technology 1999;10:199-204.
- Rao TP, Ozeki M, Juneja LR. In Search of a Safe Natural Sleep Aid. J Am Coll Nutr. 2015;34(5):436-47.
- Cases J, Ibarra A, Feuillere N, Roller M, Sukkar S. Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Mediterranean journal of nutrition and metabolism. 2011; 4(3): 211-8.1.
- Scholey A, Gibbs A, Neale C, et al. Investigation of a Melissa officinalis special extract on Cognition II: Human study - Lemon balm extract administered in confectionary bars. Agro FOOD Industry Hi Tech2015; 26(2): 12-4.
- Kennedy D, Wake G, Savelev S, et al. Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties. Neuropsychopharmacology 2003; 28(10): 1871-81.
- Xie W, Zhang X, Wang T, Hu J. Botany, traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology of Apocynum venetum L. (Luobuma): A review. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 May 7;141(1):1-8.
- Lau YS, Ling WC, Murugan D, Kwan CY, Mustafa MR. Endothelium-Dependent Relaxation Effect of Apocynum venetum Leaf Extract via Src/PI3K/Akt Signalling Pathway. Nutrients. 2015 Jun 30;7(7):5239-53.
- Yamatsu A, Yamashita Y, Maru I, Yang J, Tatsuzaki J, Kim M. The Improvement of Sleep by Oral Intake of GABA and Apocynum venetum Leaf Extract. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2015;61(2):182-7.
- Blumert, Michael; Jialiu Liu. Jiaogulan: China's "Immortality" Herb. (2003: Badger, CA: Torchlight Publishing.)
- Im SA, Choi HS, Choi SO, Kim KH, Lee S, Hwang BY, Lee MK, Lee CK. Restoration of electric footshock-induced immunosuppression in mice by Gynostemma pentaphyllum components. Molecules. 2012 Jun 25;17(7):7695-708.
- Shang X, Chao Y, Zhang Y, Lu C, Xu C, Niu W. Immunomodulatory and Antioxidant Effects of Polysaccharides from Gynostemma pentaphyllum Makino in Immunosuppressed Mice. Molecules. 2016 Aug 19;21(8).
- Choi HS, Zhao TT, Shin KS, Kim SH, Hwang BY, Lee CK, Lee MK. Anxiolytic effects of herbal ethanol extract from Gynostemma pentaphyllum in mice after exposure to chronic stress. Molecules. 2013 Apr 12;18(4):4342-56.
- Zhao TT, Shin KS, Choi HS, Lee MK. Ameliorating effects of gypenosides on chronic stress-induced anxiety disorders in mice. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2015 Sep 14;15:323.
- Park SH, Huh TL, Kim SY, Oh MR, Tirupathi Pichiah PB, Chae SW, Cha YS. Antiobesity effect of Gynostemma pentaphyllum extract (actiponin):
- a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014 Jan;22(1):63-71.