Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can increase your energy levels through nutrient supplementation.
The slower way is by eating quality food and by taking supplements that will enhance your immune system, and strengthen your body systems. (Appropriate exercise and relaxation are an essential part of this) This way may take longer, but the extra energy you get will be truly coming from your body. You won’t “crash” when you stop taking them, although you may feel normal fatigue.
The faster way is by taking stimulants. These trick your body into thinking you’ve got more energy than you really have, and make you able to produce more energy than unassisted (sugar is the most commonly used stimulant). But once they wear off, you are likely to feel worse, and need to take more. And when you stop taking more, chances are you’ll get sick. Or you’ll get sick first, and have to stop taking them while you recover.
Some people have strong constitutions and can get away with taking stimulants for long periods of time. Some people don’t and can’t. I’m not saying “don’t take stimulants” (you probably wouldn’t listen if I did!) but be informed. Know what effect they are having on your body and be cautious.
Supplements to help build energy & stamina
For supplements that will build the immune system, see the herbs and supplements page. Discussed here are a few particular substances, that some people have found give them more energy. But taking them only before training and competition probably won’t make a big difference. They may have small amounts of stimulants that give you a bit of a “buzz”, but in general, think of them as foods that will assist you in building a better body over time.
Ginseng – The two most common varieties of Ginseng are Korean (Panax) and Siberian. They both have a long history of medicinal use (see the herbs & supplements page for details). They are available singly, and some sports formulas include both of them.
As far as sports performance goes, historical use suggests that Siberian Ginseng is the preferred variety, although I don’t know of any studies done to back this up. Michael Colgan quotes studies done on Panax Ginseng, which suggest that continued use of it can improve endurance, increase brain & hormone activity, and lung power, and reduce lactic acid, fatigue and glycogen use.
Bee Pollen contains many essential nutrients. Pollen is the male germ of flowering plants. As bees forage, the pollen mixes with nectar and accumulates in yellow granules on the bee’s legs. It is an excellent nutritional supplement for enhancing immunity and, with its strong nutritional profile, for providing energy. It contains up to 35% complete protein, as well as 22 amino acids, an especially rich storehouse of B vitamins, 27 mineral salts, trace elements and several enzymes. Greeks called it the “nectar of the gods.” Many performance and endurance athletes use it before workouts and competition. Precaution : Open capsule & take minute amount to check for allergic reaction. Don’t take in cases of high blood pressure.
Spirulina – A micro-algae, which is highly nutritious and an excellent source of protein, chlorophyll, vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids. It has 26 times the calcium of milk, contains phosphorus, B12, RNA and DNA, and is easily digested. It is safe food with no side effects. Spirulina is used for fatigue and as an aid during fasting. Also available are combinations of algae which include spirulina, chlorella and other algae.
Although many people consider it a superfood, the downside of it is that you would need to take a large number of pills to get any significant amount of protein from it. Using powder in a shake is probably a better way to take large amounts. And remember that it’s very concentrated, and large quantities without enough water can make you dehydrated.
Coffee/ Caffeine – There are two ways you can use caffeine. You can use it on a daily basis to get you going in the morning and keep you going through the day. But if you do that, it doesn’t work as a performance aid, as your body is already used to it. Once a week is the maximum number of times it can be used to avoid the body becoming habituated to the effect.
If you are fit and don’t take coffee, guarana, energy drinks, chocolate or any other form of caffeine regularly, you can get a beneficial effect by taking about 7.5-10mg per kg of bodyweight of caffeine 3-4 hours before exercising. It can help you to go harder for longer, to use more fatty acids for fuel, and to reduce lactic acid build-up. Drink good quality coffee, preferably organic, (Michael Colgan recommends Coffea arabica beans) and enjoy!
Energy Drinks (such as Red Bull, V, etc) are essentially an alternative form of caffeine, if you want a change from coffee. But they contain many other unhealthy ingredients such as colourings, flavourings, preservatives, and large amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners, all of which are toxic. Remember that caffeine is highly addictive. If you consume caffeine in any form more than once a week, you are probably be addicted to it. To test this, go without for six days without, and see if you develop headaches or other withdrawal symptoms.
Guarana – Thought to be a Central Nervous System stimulant. The active ingredient is caffeine, but it is about 2.5 times stronger than coffee. It quickens your perceptions and wakefulness, slows the pulse, impairs the appetite, and can be used to allow for long drives, extended work hours, endurance based athletics, and delaying sleep. Some people find that guarana improves performance without as many side-effects as coffee.
The benefits claimed for Guarana are: that is a general tonic for the nervous system and muscles, it increases sexual energy and regulates blood circulation without interfering in blood pressure, it regulates the gastric and intestinal functions fighting diarrhea and flatulence, it is an antiseptic and astringent and is also a useful natural medicine to fight against intestinal constipation. It is an emulsifier of fats, limits cholesterol & arterial sclerosis and is a stimulant for mental activities.
CAUTION : Long term use of Guarana alters the blood sugar, which can cause nervousness, insomnia and possible psychic habituation. Vitamin B supplements can help counteract this.
Ephedrine – Increases alertness and gives a sense of euphoria. A powerful stimulant that boosts short term athletic performance. Can be useful as a weight loss aid, without sacrificing lean muscle. It’s now classified as a drug in New Zealand, so is no longer legally sold, but it’s still quite widely used as a weight loss, recreational, and performance stimulant. Although it an effective booster in the very short term, it is like “turbo-charging” the body, and may rapidly lead to a wide range of health problems, such as adrenal exhaustion, chronic fatigue, mental stress, and lowered immunity.
There are many other supplements and stimulants available, but there are no easy shortcuts to instant high energy levels, and unnaturally fast gains generally come at the price of impaired overall health.