It happens to everyone: that dreadful, drooping feeling in the middle of the afternoon. Among the causes are poor nutrition and lack of exercise, but even people who eat well and work out often are not immune to the afternoon blahs.
"It's very difficult to pin down exactly why it happens," says Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, herbalist and course director for the International Integrative Educational Institute, based in Eugene, Ore. "There are various conflicting theories about the ups and downs of blood sugar and the various hormonal details," Khalsa says, though there are clearly connections to blood-sugar levels and adrenal function, he adds.
"There's not just one reason for it," says Dr. Leo Galland, author of The Fat Resistance Diet (Broadway, 2005) and director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in New York City. "For some people, this dip in alertness may be part of their natural fluctuating biological rhythms and daily declining adrenal function."
Take your vitamins (and antioxidants, too)
"In terms of supplementation, there are two primary areas I look at," says Sheila Kingsbury, N.D., assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle. "The first is B vitamins, because they play a role in our energy and metabolism as well as our nervous system. One of the B vitamins, pantothenic acid or B5, is also utilized by the adrenal gland." Kingsbury suggests a daily B-complex supplement.
The second supplement she recommends is vitamin C. "Our vitamin C needs are sapped by stress, pollution, toxins and poor diet, and if you add in adrenals, we really come up short," she says. Kingsbury believes we need 1,000 mg per day —far more than the recommended daily allowance. "It's best to get a variety of antioxidants rather than relying on just one to handle free radicals every day," she says. She suggests getting as many antioxidants as possible from eating fruits and vegetables, and the rest from supplements.
Galland suggests that someone suffering from severe afternoon fatigue schedule an appointment to check for nutritional deficiencies. "Assuming that the person is not deficient in B12, iron, magnesium or any of the nutrients that have a significant effect on energy, I'd recommend supplementing with NADH —a form of B3 —or niacin." NADH is often marketed for improving concentration, energy and mood. In general, it's taken first thing in the morning, before breakfast, but if the afternoon energy slump is the problem, Galland recommends either switching to a lunchtime schedule or taking NADH at both times.
It's important to make sure all the basic nutrients are available when the body needs them. For any customers not already taking a multivitamin, the afternoon blahs present yet another reason to begin that habit. "The first thing everyone needs is a multivitamin that supplies adequate levels of not only the standard vitamins but also trace minerals and magnesium," Galland says.
Phasing out caffeine
Another suggestion, especially for heavy coffee users, is to wean off the substance. Khalsa says that often the best first step is to replace caffeine with another energizer. "I might suggest a replacement in the caffeine family," Khalsa says. "It's not the long-term answer, but it's better than caffeine."
The phytochemicals in substances such as green tea, guarana seed, kola nut and mate have an immediate energizing effect that is gentler than coffee. "The proportion of caffeine is less, and it's combined with other beneficial nutrients, so the lift is much more comfortable," Khalsa says. "Espresso is more jangly, sweaty, talkative and nervous. It works, but your adrenals pump out adrenaline like a tiger's chasing you down the trail."
Resetting the system
In the long run, high cortisol levels from overactive adrenals have a destructive effect on the body and are linked to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. For that reason, licorice is often recommended to help balance and stabilize adrenal function.
"Licorice is a classic energy enhancer and long-term stabilizer," Khalsa says. "Its action is to modify cortisol in the body. It mimics cortisol in the blood and enhances the length of time cortisol stays in the blood, so it's a modulator of cortisol levels." One caveat is that licorice can also increase blood pressure.
"You can take adrenal herbs like licorice root and ginseng for a couple of months to get out of your slump," Kingsbury says. "But then take a break to get back on track with your own body."
Sometimes the nervous system is so taxed by lifestyle, diet and environment that it needs to be "reset." For this, the group of herbs known as nervines are critical. "They're not something you should rely on, but they can help reset the nervous system," Kingsbury says. She suggests starting with gentler nervines like lemon balm, oat straw and catnip, which can be easily brewed in teas; if something stronger is needed, California poppy and valerian are options. "This can help you get back on track with better lifestyle adjustments," she says.
Adaptogens for the long haul
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that are safe for long-term use and helps the body's systems normalize. Most of these herbs are from non-European herbal traditions —ashwaganda from the Ayurvedic tradition, for example, and Siberian ginseng in traditional Chinese medicine. "They may take months to kick in, but they're very safe and effective for consistent energy. They also support the whole endocrine system and allow the glands to rebuild and heal," Khalsa says.
The intent of adaptogens is to strengthen and balance all the body's systems for optimum function, as opposed to giving instant energy. The exception is ginseng, which in high doses also provides a short-term energy lift. "The Chinese say that if you can feel the ginseng, you took too much," Khalsa says. "They might take only a gram a day, but for 50 years."
Combined with moderate exercise and a diet high in fruits and veggies and low in processed carbohydrates, the herbs and supplements recommended here can help anyone find optimum energy throughout the day.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 26,28