Don’t shoot the messenger, but caffeine is actually less helpful than we may think. It gives us a burst of energy shortly after consuming it, but because we need to consistently maintain this need, what it is actually doing is the opposite of what we want—it leaves us drained, exhausted, and unable to focus.
In Michael Pollan’s book, Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World, he discusses caffeine’s effect on our bodies. In essence, we think that caffeine is energizing us, because when we wake up, we are in withdrawal. He goes on to explain how caffeine played an essential role in the development of capitalist societies because we rely on it in order to be ultra-productive superhumans whose waking and sleeping hours are out of alignment with the rising and setting of the sun. The downside is that it isn’t sustainable.
The best way to have optimal energy is getting an adequate amount of sleep. Plain and simple! Besides amping up our reliance on it, caffeine negatively affects our sleep. Consuming caffeine is robbing Peter to pay Paul—what we get in the moment, we then lose later on to an even larger extent.
So what do we do when we want a little more energy but don’t want to be locked in this cycle of depleting our natural energy reserves? One great alternative is a group of plants called adaptogens. Whereas caffeine works by creating a super-surge of stimulated energy, adaptogens work by supplementing the body where there is a void. For example, some adaptogens will have a calming effect for some, and that same adaptogen could energize others.
While adaptogens have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years, study of adaptogens within Western medicine is fairly limited. From a scientific perspective, it isn’t fully understood how adaptogens work on a cellular level- but it appears that they affect both the stress response and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the nervous-endocrine system. It sounds counter-intuitive that something which lowers our stress levels could be energizing, but this is approaching it from a Westernized, go-go-go perspective. Think of it this way: when you’re high-stressed and moving in a thousand different directions, do you feel alert, focused, and accomplished? Or as if you’re running on a hamster wheel? Meanwhile, when you can set aside the things that are renting space in your head, you’re able to feel a sense of completeness and the ability to complete tasks thoroughly.
The following are a few adaptogens which can be very beneficial:
Ginseng is probably the most well-known of all adaptogens. Ginseng is a root with five “limbs” and looks like a human body when it is whole. It has been harvested in China and revered for its benefits for over 2,000 years. More recently, American ginseng has been discovered in the Appalachian mountain area of the United States. Ginseng helps revitalize the entire body, can help with sexual functioning, and protects the liver from toxins. They say animals have an intuitive sense of what’s best, and if that’s the case then ginseng is a wonderfood—part of the reason for ginseng’s high cost, besides the enormous demand, is that it is very difficult to grow because wildlife devour it as soon as it reaches maturity.
Sometimes called “Russian ginseng,” eleuthero is grown in the Siberian region of Russia. It has been proven to reduce stress while optimizing performance and concentration. It protects the liver from toxins and is sometimes used in holistic treatment of cancer.
This plant is known as a balancing adaptogen. It can both energize throughout the day as well as be taken for its calming effects before bed. It has a nutty and earthy aroma and is sometimes dried, crushed into a powder, and steeped in hot milk of any kind for a warming drink. As well as its emotional benefits, it’s also anti-inflammatory and supports the nervous system and thyroid and adrenal functions.
Rhodiola smells like a lovely bouquet of roses, but tastes bitter and unpleasant. It is touted for clearing brain fog, and improves focus and concentration. Sometimes it can upset the stomach, so it’s best taken with food. It also has healing neurorestorative properties, so can help with brain and nervous system conditions.
Schizandra is best known for its multifaceted flavor and effects. Its native Chinese name is we wei zu, which translates to “five-flavor fruit,” referring to its ability to touch upon sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and pungent all at once on our taste pallets. Its effects on the body are numerous and varied as well. It has major benefits for the liver, supports proper digestion, can help abate chronic cough or asthma, and balances hormone levels.
An in-depth resource for adaptogens is Maria Noel Groves’s Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care.
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