Imagine this: You wake up bright-eyed ready for another fabulous day. You go for a quick morning run and get back in time to shower, dress, get the kids ready for school, and whip up a quick breakfast for the family. After a full day's work, you pick up the kids, arrive home and begin a four-course dinner. Afterward, you organize a kitchen cleaning, throw in some laundry, commune with your spouse, make lunches for the next day and get ready to enthusiastically do it all over again.
Yeah, right. It's a pretty picture but hardly realistic. Many people are running on very low energy reserves daily and have difficulty finding the stamina to brush their teeth, much less manage a morning run. However, the right regimen of herbs, proper nutrition and stress management can restore vitality and provide the energy needed for a rich and spirited life.
Christopher Hobbs, a fourth-generation herbalist and botanist, acupuncturist and author of numerous books, including Stress and Natural Healing, (Botanica, 1997), claims that the No. 1 reason people come to his practice is to increase their energy levels. Addressing the chronic problem of fatigue and lack of vitality in our modern society, Hobbs compares the American credit-card lifestyle to the way we manage our energy reserves: Caffeine, sugar and other unhealthy vices serve as our credit, but it's only a perception of substance, and soon we have to pay up.
Cathy Hope, veteran herbalist and owner of Taos, N.M.-based Iris Herbal Products, says, "There are several different factors that can cause fatigue, and it is critical to determine those before implementing a program." Both Hope and Hobbs concur that the main causes of fatigue include stress and mental/emotional health, poor digestion and general constitutional weakness—which usually refers back to poor digestion—meaning the body is unable to convert food to energy at optimal replenishing levels.
Although there are a variety of herbal regimens to help increase vitality, people need to first consider changing the daily habits that contribute to fatigue. A balanced diet is the initial step. Hope often urges clients to eat a wide spectrum of organic greens, grains, nuts and fruits while avoiding sugars, caffeine and overeating.
Stress and poor sleeping habits are the other main issues associated with fatigue, zapping our vital energy and compromising immunity. Consequently, prior to taking herbal formulas to fight fatigue, the holistic approach to energy enhancement strongly suggests lifestyle changes and stress management. Once you've addressed these issues, herbs can take you to the next level, providing you with the extra energy you seek to finish your day on a high note.
Both Hope and Hobbs recommend Chinese herbs for rebuilding vitality, or chi. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based largely on the use of tonics and adaptogenic herbs. A tonic is an herb or combination of herbs that helps restore vitality and gently strengthens specific bodily systems, such as a liver tonic or a heart tonic.
Adaptogens, or adaptogenic herbs, are essentially the same as tonics but aid the entire body rather than specific systems. An adaptogen is an herb that increases nonspecific resistance to illness, while causing minimal disruption to physiology. Both tonics and adaptogens work gently, effectively and long-term by helping balance and normalize the body.
Hobbs claims 80 or 90 percent of the fatigue cases he treats can be physiologically linked to two different scenarios. "In most cases, bodily and mental fatigue is caused by adrenal weakness [kidney chi deficiency, in TCM terms] or lack of digestive fire [poor digestion]," he says. According to TCM, the kidneys serve as the storehouse of vital energy. The Western perspective explains that such a deficiency gives way to a stressed nervous system and hormonal imbalance. If we are overworked and depleted, then kidney chi deficiency is most likely the cause of our exhaustion.
In this case, Hobbs recommends herbs such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium); Siberian ginseng (Eleuthercoccus senticosus) also known as eleuthero; Ligustrum berries (Ligustrum lucidum); fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum); and rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa). Hobbs also recommends ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), which is a primary herb used in Ayurveda, the ancient holistic medicine system of India. All of these herbs, with the exception of ashwagandha, are traditional chi tonics, which work with our bodily systems to increase vital energy and stamina. In the case of fatigue, they work to boost the adrenal system.
When dealing with poor digestion, Hobbs likes to use a combination of Chinese herbs and Western herbal formulas. He recommends the Chinese herbs Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) and gingerroot (Zingiber officinale), both of which aid not only in digestion but also in nutrient absorption. Digestive aids in the Western herbal tradition call for bitter tonics, including gentian (Gentiana lutea), angelica (Angelica archangelica), orange peel, and cardamom (Eletharia cardamomum).
Which herbs to take is based somewhat on individual diagnosis; however, it is crucial to differentiate between causes, either a kidney chi deficiency or poor digestion. "Late afternoon exhaustion is often due to a kidney imbalance, whereas if a person wakes up in the morning tired after a good night's sleep, that is often indicative of digestive vitality weakness," Hobbs says.
Hope also advocates the use of "nutritive tonics," herbs that can be eaten raw or steamed with other vegetables. These include alfalfa, chickweed, burdock root, young dandelion leaves, lambsquarters, nettles and purslane. These herbs enhance our daily nutrition profile by providing a wealth of vitamins and minerals. In addition to the tonics and adaptogens," Hope states, "I work with fatigue on a systemic basis, which means building up the immune system in general." Along these immune-boosting lines, astragalus, schizandra and reishi mushroom are also recommended.
If you are suffering from a lack of vitality and fatigue, it is critical to diagnose the problem and implement a long-term solution. Unlike pharmaceuticals, herbal treatments are not quick-fix answers. They require a long-term commitment in order to re-establish health and vitality. Consult a certified herbalist to establish a regimen best suited for your needs.
Jerry Schwartz is a Taos, N.M.-based organic farmer, herbalist and freelance writer.