Originally published March 24, 2005. Updated July 18, 2016.
Some tonics and supplements can help seniors whose energy is flagging. Here are my suggestions:
• Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis): Used as a tonic and restorative, this Chinese fungus can help overcome general weakness and fatigue and increase physical stamina, mental energy, sexual vigor and longevity. You can buy whole, dried cordyceps online and in health food stores and add it to soups and stews, or drink tea made from powdered cordyceps, but it is more convenient to get cordyceps extracts in liquid or capsule form. To treat general weakness, take cordyceps once or twice a day, following the dosage advice on the product. For health maintenance, take it once or twice a week.
• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Tinctures or capsules from the root of this Siberian plant can help address lethargy, fatigue and low stamina. Look for eleuthero products standardized to 0.08 percent of eleutherosides. These vary in concentration and potency, so read the label instructions carefully. The usual recommended dose is two capsules or one dropperful of tincture twice a day unless the instructions direct otherwise.
• Rhodiola (R. rosea): Also called arctic root or rose root, rhodiola grows at high altitude in the Arctic areas of Europe and Asia. In Russia it is used as a tonic and remedy for fatigue, poor attention span and decreased memory, and in the Scandinavian countries as a general strengthener and to increase the capacity for mental work. A review published in the Fall 2002 issue of HerbalGram, the journal of the American Botanical Council, reported that numerous studies in humans, animals and in cells have shown that rhodiola helps prevent fatigue, stress and the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation. The evidence reviewed suggests that rhodiola has an antioxidant effect and enhances immune system function. Rhodiola’s efficacy was confirmed in a 2011 review of 11 placebo-controlled human studies concluding that it might have beneficial effects on physical performance, mental performance, and certain mental health conditions. The reviewers noted that few adverse events were reported, suggesting a good safety profile.
In addition, strength training can help combat age-related weakness. After age 40, we lose one quarter to one-third of a pound of muscle annually (it is replaced by fat) leading to a loss of strength of one to two percent per year. Strength training can slow and even reverse these changes resulting in stronger muscles, improved walking speed and an increase in overall strength. A 2011 German review of the scientific literature on strength training for seniors concluded that healthy men and women, age 60 and older, should train three or four times a week for best results and that those with poor performance at the outset can improve with even less frequent training. Beyond that, a study published in 2015 found that women between the ages of 65 and 75 who lifted weights twice a week had less shrinkage of the brain’s white matter than did other participants in the study who didn’t work out as much.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Frank Mayer et al, “The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly,” Deutsches Aerzteblatt international, May 2011 DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0359