Dangers of Herbal Energy Formulas
By David Bock C.Ac. Dipl. CH, Dipl.Ac
There are many herbal-based energy products on the market making claims
about boosting metabolism and athletic performance. Buyer beware: some
herbal "energy" products have been misused to the point of causing
bodily harm and even death.
These energy products may use traditional herbs, but they are not formulated
to treat medical conditions. To use them safely, you must understand,
traditional herbal strategies which explain how these products affect
There are two main strategies that come into play when considering the
herbs used in these types of supplements: (1) some nourish or add fuel
to the body, and (2) some stimulate or move the energy that already exists
in the body.
Consider a campfire - you can control the flames by how much wood or
fuel you use, and how much air can get to the flames. If the intent is
to "whip up" the fire - or energy - the fastest way to do this
is by fanning the flames or, in other words, pure stimulation. The strongest
way to do this in the body is through the use of amphetamines or "speed."
Amphetamines greatly increase heart rate, blood flow and cause fuel to
burn quickly. This is known to help people lose weight, but can be dangerous
to the body.
Just because a stimulant is herbal based does not make it any safer than
chemical amphetamines. Many herbal diet and energy pills are an inappropriate
mix of natural herbal stimulants that intensify the stimulating quality.
These pills are simply designed to create an herbal equivalent of an amphetamine.
Natural sources of caffeine, aspirin, ephedra and pseudoephedrine may
not be as strong as amphetamines, or methamphetamines, by themselves.
But under the right conditions - such as overdose, dehydration, heart
conditions, medication interaction, etc. - they can be just as dangerous.
Legal, natural stimulants can be used safely, but athletes should be
aware of the strategy behind their use. They rev up the system, but do
not necessarily give you more energy, stamina or power. They only make
you feel more "revved up."
The second strategy referred to above is to nourish the body, or to provide
fuel for the fire. Increasing your intake of carbohydrates and proteins
is a sensible choice to accomplish this. Those who want a quick boost
often turn to ginseng, cordyceps, dang gui, royal jelly, and a host of
other exotic herbal products.
Strategy-wise, the use of nourishing herbs rarely corrects the underlying
cause of low energy. Nourishing herbs, especially ginseng, were traditionally
understood as a bandage or a crutch - something to help the body function
until a time when they were no longer needed. The classic use of ginseng
was for the elderly, especially when a weak person needed to use herbs
that were too difficult to digest. Ginseng provided a way to boost up
the body temporarily, making it possible for the important herbs to do
The downside to all nourishing foods and herbs is that they can weigh
down the system, similar to smothering a small fire with a big log, or
overeating at a big holiday meal. Too much fuel slows down the system
and makes the body feel sluggish. There are several strategies to deal
with this type of sluggishness. Your activity level can be increased to
burn off the fuel; spices or stimulants can also help; or you can better
moderate the energy (i.e. food) you consume in the first place.
Many of the popular "energy" drinks follow the idea of overloading
a fast burn fuel (sugar and ginseng et. al.) along with a stimulant (caffeine)
to fan the fire. Traditional cooking often follows this concept as well.
Heavy meats and rich desserts are often matched with spices specifically
to "lighten" how these foods feel in the body.
Overuse of these energy drinks, or just sugar and caffeine in general,
can be hard on the body. They tend to be like gasoline to a fire. These
quick energy hits tend to raise energy quickly, leading to a crash of
energy later. This can lead to dependency, as another quick hit of energy
is often desired in order to recover from the energy crash. Many people
find they eventually cannot function unless they have a constant flow
of caffeine and sugar.
In traditional herbal medicine, the overuse of sweet was seen to increase
certain types of joint pain. Our modern culture uses an unprecedented
amount of sugar. Too much sugar over a long period of time, like all nourishing
foods, can make you feel sluggish and heavy. It can even lead to increased
A martial artist or athlete must, understand his or her own body and
how to achieve the performance level desired. In general, you will see
better performance when you eat a healthy diet that provides a balanced
amount of energy sufficient to sustain you through your regular activity.
Reliance on various "energy" supplements should be avoided or
left to those extreme situations where you need them to get by until you
can get back to your regular routine.
Try to understand the strategy behind the supplements you are using.
If you need a strong dose of stimulant-type herbs to avoid feeling sluggish
after meals, then you may be overloading on "fuel." Your body
will function best when you properly match the fuel to the fire.
Common stimulant herbs:
ma huang/ ephedra
zhi shi/ bitter orange/ citrus aurantium
guarana/ paullinia cupana
Common nourishing herbs:
Ginseng/ (all forms)
huang qi/ astragalus
dang gui/ angelic sinensis
shu di huang/ rhemannia
gan cao/ licorice
he shou wu/ polygonum multiflorum/ fo ti
animal parts, particularly deer
dong chong xia cao/ cordyceps
yin yang huo/ epimedium/ horny goat weed
jiao gu lan/panta/ gynostemma pentaphyllum
About The Author:
David Bock, C.Ac. Dipl.Ac. Dipl.CH, is a teacher of Wadokai Aikido (under
Roy Suenaka Sensei), a Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist, NCCAOM National
Board Certified in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology, author of the online
column “The Practical Herbalist” at www.lakecountryonline.com.
He can be reached at www.hartlandorientalmed.com