Updated: May 26
Natural supplements and herb-derived drugs that support or enhance athletic performance are defined as ergogenics and they often capture the attention of many athletes seeking to optimise their physical achievements. The reason why some athletes heartfully love them is because ergogenic herbs are non-toxic, side-effects free and therefore disregarded as doping substances by the MHRA.
Such supplements are commonly found in health food stores in the form of tablets, drops, beverages or powders and they are usually combined in elaborated formulas alongside a long list of vitamins and minerals.
Nevertheless, there are few herbal ergogenics that can give astonishing performance results just by being consumed on their own. Here is a selection of five popular and well-researched ones which should be in every athlete’s pantry.
CORDYCEPS (Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris)
Cordyceps gained popularity in the Western world after the 1993 olympic games where three women in the Chinese team broke five running world records; when interviewed, they attributed their success to daily intake of Cordyceps. A decade later, few studies providing evidence of the efficacy of cordyceps started to appear in scientific journals. A study involving 28 athletes supplementing with a mushroom blend containing Cordyceps showed an outstanding statistical improvement in peak flow, oxygen consumption and time to exhaustion within only three weeks of treatment (1). Another study on elderly athletes aged 50-75 showed a noticeable decrease in lactic acid accumulation and improved optimised oxygen metabolism after 12 weeks of supplementation (2). Moreover, experiments on mice fed with Cordyceps showed an increase in ATP (the body’s energy currency) production and a reduction in free radicals (the toxic byproducts of oxygen metabolism) (4,5).
KOREAN GINSENG (Panax ginseng)
In Chinese pharmacopoeia ginseng root is considered one of the ultimate tonics and is used to manage symptoms such as fatigue, low libido, shortness of breath and premature aging. The mighty compounds synthesized by the ginseng plant which have such broad therapeutic applications are saponins called ginsenosides (5); these compounds have cardioprotective, antioxidant, neuroprotective, immunostimulant and hormone-balancing properties (6,7,8). Ginseng is defined as a stimulant tonic, increasing alertness, cognition, physical energy without inducing the jittering. Due to these properties, ginseng might have some applications in enhancing physical performance. In support of this statement, a study showed that supplementation of a gram of Korean ginseng for a period of 14 days showed to effectively reduce perceived exertion during anaerobic exercise and the magnitude of pain/soreness post exercise (9).
SIBERIAN GINSENG (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Siberian ginseng is a close cousin of Korean ginseng and shares many of its benefits; in fact, some say it’s the most well researched adaptogen for athletic performance (11).
Somewhat like its Korean relative, Siberian ginseng evolved to produce a family of extremely powerful triterpenoid compounds called eleutherosides, which have shown immunomodulatory, antioxidant, antidepressant, anti-fatigue and blood sugar balancing activities (12,13). It is thanks to the eleutherosides that Siberian ginseng is a notorious tonic for the brain, hormones and muscles; animal and human studies have shown that Siberian ginseng boosts motivation, activation and reward neurotransmitters , which could have an implication on quality of performance via neuro-muscular pathways (14). Few other studies on athletes demonstrated remarkable improvements on a metabolic level, showing that Siberian ginseng could be effective at promoting lipid and glucose utilisation while decreasing heart rate and improving oxygen uptake during exercise; probably due to these physiological changes, a study showed that Siberian ginseng boosted the endurance of high intensity exercises up to 23% (12,15).
BEETROOT JUICE (Beta vulgaris)
Beetroot is not an exotic remedy like the ones aforementioned, but it is still relevant one to mention due to its effects on the cardiovascular system. Beetroot pulp and juice are high in inorganic nitrates, compounds that when ingested are converted in nitric oxide (NO), a powerful vasodilator (16). NO has a direct positive effect on the utilisation of oxygen and glucose from skeletal muscles, enhancing mitochondrial production of ATP (the energy currency) and supporting the contraction-relaxation processes of the muscle (16). Beetroot juice has been proven effective at optimising energetic economy (the use of O2 in relationship to distance travelled) in both experienced athletes and untrained individuals; moreover, some scientist postulate that long term use of beetroot juice can stimulate the biogenesis of new mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses, therefore supporting the performance of endurance athletes (16).
RHODIOLA (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola is high in antioxidant, mood enhancing and adaptogenic compounds such as rosavins and salidrosides which are thought to be responsible for the ergogenic properties of this root (17). Results from studies on the effectiveness of Rhodiola for athletic performance are quite remarkable: four weeks use of rhodiola significantly reduced lactic acid in the bloodstream and promoted muscle recovery (18) while ingestion of rhodiola prior to endurance exercise increased performance outcome (19) and post-exercise mood boost (20).
The evidence speaks loud and clear about the ergogenic effectiveness of these herbal remedies. In summary: cordyceps improves lung capacity, Korean and Siberian ginseng decrease perceived fatigue, beetroot juice boosts endurance and rhodiola promotes muscle recovery. Although they are not a substitute to a healthy diet or carefully planned exercise regime, they are valuable allies when it comes to running that last mile or to lifting that extra weight.
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Chen, Steve, et al. “Effect of Cs-4® (Cordyceps Sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 16, no. 5, May 2010, pp. 585–590, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110835/, 10.1089/acm.2009.0226. Accessed 26 Nov. 2019.
Lin, Bao-qin, and Shao-ping Li. “Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug.” PubMed, CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92758/#_ch5_sec10_. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.
Song, Jingjing, et al. “Studies on the Antifatigue Activities of Cordyceps Militaris Fruit Body Extract in Mouse Model.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, vol. 2015, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553310/#sec4title, 10.1155/2015/174616. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.
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Kim, Hee Jin, et al. “A Comprehensive Review of the Therapeutic and Pharmacological Effects of Ginseng and Ginsenosides in Central Nervous System.” Journal of Ginseng Research, vol. 37, no. 1, 15 Jan. 2013, pp. 8–29, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3659622/, 10.5142/jgr.2013.37.8.
Kim, Jong-Hoon. “Pharmacological and Medical Applications of Panax Ginseng and Ginsenosides: A Review for Use in Cardiovascular Diseases.” Journal of Ginseng Research, vol. 42, no. 3, July 2018, pp. 264–269, 10.1016/j.jgr.2017.10.004. Accessed 22 May 2019.
Lee, Seungyeop, and Dong-Kwon Rhee. “Effects of Ginseng on Stress-Related Depression, Anxiety, and the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis.” Journal of Ginseng Research, vol. 41, no. 4, Oct. 2017, pp. 589–594, 10.1016/j.jgr.2017.01.010. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Caldwell, Lidya K. “The Effects of a Korean Ginseng, GINST15, on Perceptual Effort, Psychomotor Performance, and Physical Performance in Men and Women.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 17, 2018, pp. 92–100.
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Kuo, Jip, et al. “Effects of Eleutherococcus Senticosus (CIWUJIA) on Fat Metabolism and Endurance Performance in Long Distance Runners.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 38, no. Supplement, May 2006, p. S401, 10.1249/00005768-200605001-02566. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.
Kuo, Jip et al. “The Effect of Eight Weeks of Supplementation with Eleutherococcus Senticosus on Endurance Capacity and Metabolism in Human.” The Chinese Journal of Physiology, vol. 53, no. 2, 1 Apr. 2010, pp. 105–111, 10.4077/cjp.2010.amk018.
Rhim, Yong-Taek, et al. “Effect of Acanthopanax Senticosus on 5-Hydroxytryptamine Synthesis and Tryptophan Hydroxylase Expression in the Dorsal Raphe of Exercised Rats.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 114, no. 1, Oct. 2007, pp. 38–43, 10.1016/j.jep.2007.07.030. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.
Wu, Y., et al. “[Effect of Ciwujia (Radix Acanthopanacis Senticosus) Preparation on Exercise Performance under Constant Endurance Load for Elderly].” Wei Sheng Yan Jiu = Journal of Hygiene Research, vol. 27, no. 6, 30 Nov. 1998, pp. 421–424, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11939036/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.
Domínguez, Raúl, et al. “Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Cardiorespiratory Endurance in Athletes. A Systematic Review.” Nutrients, vol. 9, no. 1, 6 Jan. 2017, p. 43, 10.3390/nu9010043.
Chiang, Hsiu-Mei, et al. “Rhodiola Plants: Chemistry and Biological Activity.” Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, vol. 23, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 359–369, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1021949815000563, 10.1016/j.jfda.2015.04.007. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.
De Bock, Katrien, et al. “Acute Rhodiola Rosea Intake Can Improve Endurance Exercise Performance.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, vol. 14, no. 3, June 2004, pp. 298–307, 10.1123/ijsnem.14.3.298.
Noreen, Eric, et al. “The Effects of an Acute Dose of Rhodiola Rosea on Exercise Performance and Cognitive Function.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 6, no. S1, July 2009, 10.1186/1550-2783-6-s1-p14. Accessed 17 Aug. 2020.
Duncan, Michael J., and Neil D. Clarke. “The Effect of AcuteRhodiola RoseaIngestion on Exercise Heart Rate, Substrate Utilisation, Mood State, and Perceptions of Exertion, Arousal, and Pleasure/Displeasure in Active Men.” Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 2014, 2014, pp. 1–8, 10.1155/2014/563043. Accessed 31 Dec. 2019.