Plants to improve athletic performance
In my work as a nutrition consultant, I see people with wide-ranging approaches to exercise, including those who walk for relaxation and those who play professional sports for a living. As for myself, I’m serious about my workouts, which include days of super-slow weight lifting and long Sunday bicycle rides. No matter the exercise level, though, all of us have at least one thing in common: we want more energy in order to feel and perform better in both work and play.
Herbal energizers have a lot to offer, but an understanding of how they work is required for safe and effective use. These herbs generally fall into one of two categories—stimulants or adaptogens, also known as tonics.
Stimulants excite the body by increasing heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, and may increase the rate of muscle fiber contractions. Herbal stimulants include ephedra, coca, and licorice. Adaptogens, including members of the ginseng family, act in nonspecific ways to increase the body’s resistance to physical stress.
Most experts agree on the effects of stimulants, but skeptics often label adaptogens worthless because many of them haven’t been tested under the rigors of Western science. Nevertheless, experience in other countries shows that adaptogens are worth considering if you want to improve your athletic performance.
Stimulating herbs typically contain alkaloids, powerful chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and are found most often in plants. Alkaloids have pronounced effects—like those of morphine or codeine—on the central nervous system and they can dramatically increase heart and breathing rates as well as blood pressure. Although they can improve your performance in an isolated race or event, stimulant herbs are unlikely to help if they’re used regularly. More importantly, if they are chronically used or abused, they can seriously injure or kill.
Caffeine is the best-known stimulating alkaloid. It is found in coffee, tea, cola, and herbs such as guarana and kola nut. Daily consumption of such products leads to caffeine habituation, which makes the effect it has on the body fairly moderate. For those who drink coffee regularly, for example, sipping a cup of coffee before a race isn’t going to give you an energy boost or improve your performance. However, if you never drink coffee except right before a race, caffeine can significantly impact your performance for that race only.
People can become habituated to other herbal stimulants as well. With habituation, some herbs first become ineffective, then dangerous. As we become habituated, the dose needed to produce the desired effect increases, so the tendency is to use more and more, thinking that higher quantities will produce the original stimulating effect. But higher doses may lead to dangerously high increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which may cause cardiac arrest or stroke. At minimum, abusing stimulants can lead to nervousness, irritability, headaches, indigestion, insomnia, paranoia, and even hallucinations.
Herbs that are commonly used and sometimes abused for energy bursts include ephedra, guarana, kola nut, khat, and coca leaves, and each possesses its unique alkaloid. Ephedra contains ephedrine, guarana and kola nut contain caffeine, and khat contains several alkaloid amphetamines. Coca leaves contain cocaine. Andean natives chew coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness, suppress appetite, and provide the drive needed for hours of labor in their cold, windy mountain environment. But after ingesting stimulant herbs, they rest thoroughly to counteract the toll the alkaloids take on their bodies, and rejuvenate themselves with nutritive, strengthening foods and herbal tonics.
One final note about stimulants: Herbal products containing ephedra, guarana or kola nut, and white willow have appeared on store shelves because the combination allegedly mimics a popular diet aid that contains caffeine, aspirin, and ephedrine. The three-drug combination has been clinically proven to suppress appetite and increase the use of body fat for energy, but the herbal mimic has not. Additionally, the use of many stimulant drugs will disqualify an athlete if they’re used during competition.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an herbal stimulant that doesn’t contain alkaloids. Its stimulating action is provided by glycyrrhizin, known best for its sweetening character, and other biochemicals (flavonoids, phenolics, and triterpene glycosides). Licorice stimulates the adrenal cortex and prolongs the action of the adrenal hormones, which play a major role in regulating metabolism.
When licorice is used to “kick-start” the adrenal system to help recovery from overtraining, it is relatively safe. However, licorice seems to lose its effect with long-term use and may cause side effects, including fluid retention, hypertension, and reduced stomach acid secretion. Excessive use of licorice, like any drug, can be quite toxic. People with heart disease, liver disease, or hypertension should avoid licorice, and it should not be used during pregnancy.
For regaining energy levels, I recommend doses of 1 to 2 g of a licorice root product containing at least 4 percent glycyrrhizin three times daily for up to six weeks, then, over the course of two weeks, gradually reducing the dose, tapering off to nothing. Look for a standardized extract in the form of a liquid or capsules.
Adaptogenic herbs increase the body’s resistance to nonspecific stress. In other words, adaptogens, or tonics, help us handle any type of stress better. Athletic competition involves both physical and mental stress, so long-term consumption of adaptogenic herbs is thought to help improve training effectiveness and overall performance. By definition, adaptogens are harmless when used over long periods of time, and they have few dangerous or unpleasant side effects.
Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the world’s best-known and mostly widely used adaptogen. Practitioners of traditional Chinese and Korean medicine have used ginseng for thousands of years as both a tonic and curative for debilitating physical and mental fatigue, weakness, impotence, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions.
Ginseng can lessen fatigue, as can ashwagandha; schisandra can improve speed and recovery.
Ginseng’s efficacy is never questioned in China, but Western societies have yet to completely embrace it. For one thing, it is fairly difficult to scientifically test adaptogens such as ginseng on humans in a manner that is both ethical and objective. It would be unethical to feed one person ginseng and another a placebo, for example, then throw both of them into the middle of an icy-cold lake to see who can best swim to shore. But life-threatening stress is often what it takes to conclude definitively that any product, be it an herb, vitamin, or drug, can provide a performance edge.
To get around this dilemma, three main approaches have been used to test well-known adaptogens. The first has been to ignore ethics and experiment on humans without their full knowledge or consent; the second has focused on animal testing; and the third has aimed to accumulate enough data in order to run sophisticated statistical research tests.
These three techniques have been used to confirm the validity of Korean ginseng, as well as the adaptogens ashwagandha and schisandra. Here, we’ve included some examples of recent research findings about these adaptogens resulting from the three testing approaches.
Studies have confirmed that Korean, and to a lesser extent American (Panax quinquefolius) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), are adaptogenic, protect against chronic disease, lessen fatigue, and mildly stimulate the adrenal cortex. (For more information about Siberian ginseng, see “Roots of Steel” ; for more information about P. ginseng, see “Ginseng—Facts and Folklore”).
The ginsengs contain ginsenosides, which are believed to be the constituents responsible for most of their actions. The ginsenoside content is quite variable among samples of the same species and is always different between species.
One double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in Europe involved 232 people aged twenty-five to sixty with nonspecific fatigue. Participants were given 80 mg daily of a standardized commercial extract of Korean ginseng that also contained small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Study participants were rated with “fatigue scores” recorded before the study, then recorded after 21 days, then after 42 days. The patients generally reported improvements in feelings of fatigue, nervousness, anxiety, and poor concentration after 21 days, but these improvements weren’t statistically significant until after 42 days. The amount of vitamins and minerals was very small in each dose, so ginseng may have played a major role in counteracting fatigue in this study. However, researchers didn’t rule out that the vitamins may have had an impact on the results as well.
Ashwagandha root is known as “Indian Ginseng”. In Ayurvedic medicine it is considered an adaptogen that facilitates learning and memory.
In a 1993 clinical study in India, fifty people complaining of lethargy and fatigue for 2 to 6 months were given an adaptogenic tonic made up of eleven herbs, including 760 mg of ashwagandha, once a day. The participants had not responded to a vitamin and mineral supplement each of them had taken for at least 2 months, and they had no recognizable disease. After 1 month of taking the ashwagandha mixture, the patients reported an average 45 percent improvement in their moods. Their blood plasma protein levels and hemoglobin, two factors used to measure overall health, also increased significantly, providing a statistical measurement of the tonic’s effect. Another study in 1995 in India found that ashwagandha was beneficial in treating the exceedingly stressful withdrawal from morphine addiction.
A 1994 study in India compared the adaptogenic and anabolic (ability to promote growth of lean body mass) effects of P. ginseng and ashwagandha in mice and rats. Groups of six mice were fed 100 mg/kg water extract of either ginseng, ashwagandha, or saline for seven days. On the eighth day, the animals’ endurance levels were tested by swimming. Their average swimming times in minutes were 62.55, ginseng; 82.14, ashwagandha; and 35.34, saline.
In another experiment, three groups of six castrated rats were given ginseng, ashwagandha, or saline at a rate of 1 g/kg of body weight for seven days. The anabolic steroid Orabolin was given at a rate of 100 micrograms to a fourth group. Those rats taking ashwagandha and ginseng showed significant increases in total body weight and dry thigh muscle weight, with results only slightly below Orabolin. It must be noted, however, that in both these experiments the dosages were quite large compared with the typical human dose and it may be unsafe for humans to take such large doses of these herbs on an extended basis.
In my experience, schisandra is a great herb for improving endurance. One convincing study of polo and race horses showed that the herb dramatically improved their speed and recovery after racing. In fact, the racehorses decreased their 800-meter time from 52.2 to 50.4 seconds—a competitive advantage of six lengths. Additionally, researchers found that schisandra decreased the heart and breathing rates of all of the horses after running, and that these rates returned to normal more quickly than when taking a placebo. Finally, the polo horses recovered from exertion faster than when they were taking a placebo.
In China, where Traditional Chinese Medicine has used the herb for centuries, a preparation known as Sheng Mai San is prescribed for patients with weakness and shock. Sheng Mai San is comprised of Korean ginseng, schisandra, and mondo grass. The Chinese believe that the formula is ineffective without schisandra. According to Western research, S. chinensis contains antioxidants and helps protect the liver. There are no reported side effects from using this adaptogen.
Using herbs to increase your energy can be useful if you use them wisely. My approach to exercise leads me to choose Korean and Siberian ginseng, as well as schisandra, for performance stamina. To ensure that you’re using an herbal energizer that works for you and your exercise plan, talk with your health-care provider.
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant who lives in Clovery, Maryland.
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