Selected Herbals and Exercise Performance

Despite a long tradition of use by physically active people, the scientific study of effects of herbs on physical performance has been mostly ignored. Difficulties with belief systems, taxonomic classification, identification and consistency of herbal components, dose-response, accessibility of foreign research, and lack of funding have prevented more than cursory research on single herbs or combinations. Precedent for an ergogenic effect of herbs on exercise performance is evidenced by the ban on certain herbal components by sports regulatory agencies, such as excess caffeine or ephedrine and related alkaloids. These substances have been purified and studied outside their herbal context and shown to enhance certain aspects of exercise performance.’

Herbs that have been studied the most include the various types of ginseng (Panox spp. and Eleutherococcus senticosus).1,2 In general, animal studies frequently showed enhancements of exercise performance, whereas human studies showed mixed results.1-4 A dose-response effect is apparent, since studies using the highest doses produced enhancements of physical or mental performance. Mechanisms of action are vague.

Other herbs with a tradition of popular use as a tonic or for enhancement of physical performance include Cordyceps sinensis (a fungus cultivated on caterpillars), Schizandra chinensis (a Manchurian berry), Panox pseudoginseng (similar to Chinese ginseng), Astragalus membranaceus root, Lyceum spp. fruit, Rhodiola spp. (an herb similar to ginseng), Mummio (Shilajit) (aged juniper berry exudate from Himalayan rock crevices), Tribulus spp., Smilax o~icinalis (for steroid saponin content), and Ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic tonic herb.

An overlooked aspect of herbs and exercise is the extensively documented, systemic antioxidant action of some herbs: (1) green tea [Camellia sinensis] (polyphenols, e.g., catechins and gallate esters); (2) milk thistle seed [Silybum marianum] (silymarins); (3) Ginigo biloba [ginkgolides]; (4) curcumin from Curcuma longa root (turmeric); (5) proanthocyanidins from red wine, grape seeds, bilberries, blueberries, cranberries, and maritime pine tree bark; (6) rosemary, sage and thyme; and (7) bioflavonoids from citrus fruit extracts or buckwheat.

The area of herbs and physical performance remains largely unstudied. Combinations frequently used in traditional settings are almost completely unexplored scientifically. Effects of herbs on mental functions, mood, or behavior are also poorly tested.


1. Bucci LR. Dietary substances not required in human metabolism. In: Nutrients as ergogenic aids for sports and exercise. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1993: 83-98.

2. Bahrke MS, Morgan WP. Ei~luation of the ergogenic proporties of _. Spwts Med 1994;18(4):229-48.

3. McNaughton L, Egan G. Caelli G. A CompariSQn of Chinex and Rusdan ginseng u ergogenic aids to improve various facets of physicd fitness. Int Clin Nutr Rev 1989;9(1):32-S.

4. Asano K, Takahuhi T. Miyashita M, Matsuzaka A, Muramatw S. Kuboyama M, et d. Effect of Eleutherococcus senticosus extract on hu nan physical woddug capacity. Planta Med 1986;(3):17S-7.

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Written by Luke R. Bucci PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021