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Energy for Sale

Energy products abound: in drinks, herbs, bars, and even goo. But do they do anything?

Herbs and Supplements continued...

Of the herbs used for energy, ginseng probably has the most research, but the studies are contradictory, says Haggans. Plus, she says there are different types of ginseng, and the investigators don't always make it clear what kind was used in studies.

Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is generally known as a stimulant and has been used by older people seeking more energy, says Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. The Asian variety also has a reputation as a sexual enhancer for men and has been used to improve athletic performance.

American ginseng, on the other hand, is used more as a tonic and is known to increase immunity over time, says Weil.

The herbs guarana and yerba mate are rich sources of caffeine. They stimulate the central nervous system, much like coffee does. The caffeine "may be helpful for mental alertness and possibly for weight loss," says Haggans. But there have not been many studies on the herbs, separate from the effects of caffeine.

Rhodiola rosea has been used in Sweden and Denmark as an anti-fatigue supplement. There is some evidence it improves aspects of mental and physical performance, but other than that, we don't know a lot about the herb, says Haggans.

Rhodiola is often combined with cordyceps mushroom, another herb that has had little scientific research. Cordyceps mushroom by itself and the combined formula of cordyceps and rhodiola have been tested on athletic performance, and the results have been contradictory.

There are benefits to taking cordyceps mushroom, says Weil. It can reportedly provide energy to older people who have been debilitated by age or illness and to young athletes who need a boost in performance.

If you are considering the use of an herb or a supplement, it's best to first check with your doctor. Some plant compounds, no matter how natural, can interact with drugs and may have some adverse effects.

Asian ginseng, for example, can raise blood pressure in those that are prone to hypertension, says Weil. Plus, Haggans says a recent study suggests the herb may reduce the effect of Coumadin (a blood thinner) and other drugs. There are also observational reports that yerba mate, when used in large amounts or for prolonged periods, may cause cancer in the gastrointestinal tract.

Keep in mind, herbs are presumed to be safe until proven harmful. They are regulated more like foods, as opposed to drugs, says Haggans. The dietary supplement ephedra, used for weight loss or athletic performance, is one example of a plant compound that was pulled from the market following numerous reports of death and injury.

The Bottom Line on Energy Products

Energy bars, drinks, herbs, and supplements may be helpful in some instances, but they are not sure-fire remedies for fatigue.  And don’t assume that any of this stuff is inherently healthy.  If you’re just lying around the house, you really don’t need a high calorie energy bar, nor do you need to fret about your electrolyte balance.  Experts say you should just concentrate on a well-balanced diet.

"As long as you are eating a variety of foods -- in the spirit of the food guide pyramid -- you're going to be able to meet your nutrient needs," says Moore. "As long as you do that, your body is going to be able to carry out all of its functions in terms of transferring food into fuel with complete accuracy."

If a healthy diet is not helping with energy needs, examine the amount of sleep, exercise, and stress in your life. These factors, plus diseases and medications, can affect energy levels.

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Reviewed on December 29, 2008
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