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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 merry-go-round.

Controlling Caffeine
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

Southern Ginseng
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.


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Dallas Clouatre, PhD

Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D. earned his A.B. from Stanford and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. A Fellow of the American College of Nutrition, he is a prominent industry consultant in the US, Europe, and Asia, and is a sought-after speaker and spokesperson. He is the author of numerous books. Recent publications include "Tocotrienols in Vitamin E: Hype or Science?" and "Vitamin E – Natural vs. Synthetic" in Tocotrienols: Vitamin E Beyond Tocopherols (2008), "Grape Seed Extract" in the Encyclopedia Of Dietary Supplements (2005), "Kava Kava: Examining New Reports of Toxicity" in Toxicology Letters (2004) and Anti-Fat Nutrients (4th edition).