Q+A: Any energy-giving alternatives to ginseng?

Q I’m a mum of three with a full-time job and I’m training for a marathon. To help me cope with my hectic lifestyle, I’ve been taking Siberian ginseng. And it seems to work. I feel great – full of energy and vitality – even after half-marathons! However I’m worried about potential side effects, and wonder whether there are other energy-giving ‘alternatives’?

A There are three main varieties of ginseng: Panax – also referred to as Asian, Chinese or Korean ginseng – and American and Siberian, which are milder than Panax. Each individual’s response to this herb is unique, so a low dosage is advised initially.

Siberian ginseng is an adaptogenic plant – which means that it helps your body ‘adapt’ or cope with stress a little better – which has traditionally been used by athletes. Its benefits include enhancement of the immune system, increased resistance to illness, improved stamina, and heightened energy levels. It also improves the balance between neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and noradrenaline, and can have a positive effect on moods.

You shouldn’t take ginseng if you suffer from high blood pressure, manic depressive disorders, palpitations or asthma, or if you are taking steroids or blood-thinning medication. It’s also not advised during pregnancy. Taking ginseng with caffeine has been known to result in stomach upsets, hyperactivity and insomnia. Long-term use for women is not generally advised as it may cause menstrual abnormalities.

But if taken as as directed, ginseng is safe and there are no side effects. Problems start to occur if excessive dosages are taken. The recommended dosage for Panax is 100mg standardised extract twice daily, two weeks on and two weeks off. The usual dosage of standardised extract for Siberian ginseng is 150-450mg per day taken in divided doses, the last preferably no later than 3pm, for a period of two to three months followed by a four-week break.

Another, lesser known, adaptogenic herb is rhodiola. Not only does it help raise our energy levels, but it is purported to be an aphrodisiac and anti-depressant too!

Closer to home you could try nettles. They’re a highly nutritious source of nutrients including silica, zinc, iron, B2, B5 and folic acid. The plant has incredible restorative and tonic properties and increases the efficiency of the adrenal glands. These glands are often exhausted due to the twentieth-century lifestyle and can lead to us feeling run down. Include nettles in your diet by steaming like spinach, making them into nettle soup, drinking them as nettle tea, or better still, having them in fresh juice form.

Jennifer Harper, registered naturopathic doctor and author of Nine Ways to Body Wisdom.