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Maria Noel Groves
This content originally appeared on 

Let’s face it: No matter how good (or bad) your energy levels are, you always wish you had a bit more pep.

You probably already rely on at least a few herbs to keep you going. Herbal caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, yerba mate, and chocolate is a global addiction that provides quick zip with the added benefit of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and the ability to ward off obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

But caffeine still comes at a cost. Over-reliance exhausts the adrenals, can interfere with sleep, and provides jittery non-restorative energy.

Balancing out

In contrast, herbal tonics nourish the nervous system, improve and modulate adrenal function, and strengthen many different body systems. These caffeine-free herbs, called adaptogens, give you energy by helping your body adapt to stress. Choose the one that best fits your needs or opt for a stress and energy formula. You can even blend them with a little of your favorite caffeine source, if you’d like.

If you’re just plain exhausted, try stimulating adaptogens like eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), and codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula) early in the day. Most people feel an immediate pick-me-up within an hour, with greater benefit after taking them for weeks or months. Rhodiola boosts both physical and mental energy—studies have found it useful for athletes, night shift workers, and students taking tests. My menopausal clients love it for brain fog.

Eleuthero shines for its ability to help us withstand physical and mental stress while keeping energy, function, and immune health strong. Codonopsis, also known as poor man’s ginseng or dang shen, is gentler and tastes the best—try it in tea, chai, and soup broth. Although safe, these may aggravate anxiety and insomnia in sensitive people.

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) provide calmer energy, increasing vitality and easing anxiety. Their anti-inflammatory properties make them useful for chronic pain too. Holy basil balances cortisol levels to stabilize blood sugar wobbles and stress-related food cravings. Look for the tea in stores under the name tulsi. Ashwagandha strengthens respiratory, immune, and thyroid function. You can take it as a tea, tincture, or capsule, but the classic Ayurvedic method is to simmer it in milk—a dding a bit of honey or maple syrup and nutmeg makes it taste even better.

If what you really want is a brain boost, consider gotu kola (Centella asiatica) or bacopa (Bacopa monnieri). Both adaptogens quell anxiety and mild depression while enhancing brain function including memory and cognition. Both are sometimes labeled as Brahmi – check the Latin name if you want to know which herb you’re actually taking. Inhaling the scent of peppermint or rosemary also perks up the brain.

Click to See Our Sources

Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes ($18.95, Healing Arts Press, 2007)

Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits,” by Alexander Panossian, Hildebert Wagner, HerbalGram, 2011

An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda” by N. Singh et al., Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med, 7/11

Anti-Obesity and Anti-Diabetic Effects of Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) . . .” by Y.R. Kang et al., Lab Anim Res, 3/12

Cocoa Polyphenols and Inflammatory Markers of Cardiovascular Disease” by N. Khan et al., Nutrients, 2/14

Effects of Chronic Rhodiola rosea Supplementation on Sport Performance and Antioxidant Capacity . . .” by A. Parisi et al., J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 3/10

Modulation of Cognitive Performance and Mood by Aromas of Peppermint and Ylang-Ylang” by M. Moss, Int J Neurosci, 1/08