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Herbs and Athletic Performance

August 5, 2005 09:51 AM

By Jim Brown, Author, Tennis: Steps to Success, Human Kinetics Publishers

[The following article is a summary of “Herbs and Athletes,” a report written by Susan Kundrat, M.S., R.D., for the Sports Science Exchange.]

Tennis players are always looking for ways to enhance their performance, to maintain a state of health conducive to performance, and to recover from training and competition as soon as possible. Some of those individuals might consider adding herbs to their diets because it is conceivable that some herbs (defined as non-woody plants or parts of plants claimed to have medicinal, therapeutic, and performance-enhancing properties) could benefit athletes. But the author is quick to point out that there is insufficient scientific support for the use of any herb to improve performance.

Herbs contain phytochemicals that presumably account for any effects they may have. Some of those phytochemicals believed to be the active ingredients in herbs are flavonoids, phenols, saponins, and terpenes. Herbalists contend that it is the mixture of phytochemicals that is responsible for their functions, and that using extracts of only one or more of these chemicals is not likely to be as effective as taking the whole herb. Herbs are marketed in various forms, including fresh or dried products, liquids, tablets, capsules, powders, and in drinks, energy bars, and tea bags.

One survey found that 34 percent of adults in the U.S. use herbal supplements, which represents a market of more than 60 million people. Although herbs are regulated as dietary supplements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they are not required to meet the same standards as foods and beverages. One consequence is little consistency in contents among different batches of products from various manufacturers.

Ms. Kundrat’s goes into detail regarding the current research for each herb. Following is a summary of those substances that would be of interest to athletes, including the name of the herb, the benefit claimed, and safety concerns. Keep in mind that these are claims, not facts determined by conclusive scientific research.

  • Arnica (mountain tobacco, wundkraut) is used for muscle pain, stiffness, and osteoarthritis. It may increase the effects of agents that thin the blood.
  • Astragalus (huang chi, milk vetch) may benefit a weak immune system and reduce fatigue. It could also negatively interact with drugs that suppress the immune system.
  • Cayenne (capsicum, red pepper) could reduce musculoskeletal pain and help those with osteoarthritis. It may also be related to digestive disorders and skin irritation. One study showed that it increased carbohydrate metabolism.
  • Cordyceps (caterpillar fungus) is claimed by some to assist the immune system and to improve poor endurance performance. It may also reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Devil’s Claw (grapple plant) is for muscle pain, digestive problems, and fever, but may interfere with drugs used to treat diabetes.
  • Elderberry is used by some to treat colds, flu, fever, a weak immune system, and excessive fluid levels in the body. It could negatively interact with diuretics or laxatives.
  • Ginger (ginger root) is used to control nausea, vomiting, motion sickness, and the effects of osteoarthritis. It may interact with anticoagulants and diabetes drugs.
  • Ginseng (Russian root) may improve poor endurance performance and low energy. It may interfere with the action of anticoagulants.
  • Guarana (Brazilian cocoa) may reduce body fat and provide energy because it contains caffeine.
  • Rhodiola (Golden root, Arctic root) proponents claim that it combats lethargy, fatigue, and poor endurance. It may interact with other herbs.
  • Willow Bark (white willow, bay willow, purple osier) is used by some for fever, muscle pain, and osteoarthritis. It may interact with anti-clotting agents.

“The challenge for athletes, coaches, and health professionals working with athletes,” concludes Ms. Kundrat, “is finding reputable research and resources to support or refute the claims for herbs.”

USTA Southern Section Disclaimer: Due to common drug interactions never start taking an herbal supplement without first speaking with your doctor or pharmacist.

© 2005 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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