Maggie was a long-distance runner and avid volleyball player, but last
year she pulled a hamstring muscle and was unable to run for two months.
Having an extremely active and curious mind, Maggie began to explore ways
to speed up the healing process–she felt as if she was stagnating by just sitting and waiting to heal. She explored all the options–everything from allopathy, which offered muscle relaxants and surgery, to acupuncture, consisting of a series of treatments with needles inserted into places where energy might be stagnant, helping the energy to move and speed up healing. Maggie also investigated herbal remedies. She was fortunate in having a German aunt visiting from Munich who told her about a few of the famous healing herbs for injuries in the western tradition–herbs like arnica, calendula, St. John’s wort and echinacea.
As an herbalist and sports enthusiast, I have reviewed, both clinically
and scientifically, many of the herbs that have been used over the centuries by athletes. This article summarizes my discoveries.
In places like Russia, Germany, Japan and Korea, sports and herbs
are not only extremely popular, but strongly supported by the government.
Excellence in all kinds of outdoor sports is practically synonymous with
the names of these countries, where herbal remedies have been used and revered by athletes since ancient times. Probably the most famous example, and certainly
the most graphic, is the use of the herb yarrow by the first super-hero,
Achilles, to staunch the wounds of his fellow warriors in the war of Troy.
The Latin name for yarrow, Achillea millefolium still reflects this
history. Later, yarrow and other herbs were often used as a remedy for helping
to heal the cuts, scrapes and flesh wounds of the gladiators.
Often, these herbs were used in their whole natural state–either chewed
and applied as a wet poultice, or cooked with lard and employed as a salve
or ointment. In China and Japan, warriors, wrestlers and other athletes
used a variety of decoctions or teas to increase endurance and strength,
and some of these herbs are still used for the same purposes today.
Through the increased knowledge of the chemistry of plants (HPLC, etc.)
and enhanced extraction methods, it is possible for herbal manufacturers
to offer highly concentrated and standardized preparations of herbs, helping
to increase their absorbability and potency.
Naturally, athletes of every sort would put greater energy and endurance
at the top of their “wish list” and would be attracted to any
kind of pharmaceutical, natural or otherwise, that would offer more of these
precious commodities. It is evident, too, from the tremendous number and
popularity of products promising to help people increase their muscle mass
and definition that serious weight trainers are not the only ones interested
in these effects. Most everybody, both women and men, would like to have
a more muscular, “sexy” body, while many would like to lose flabby
fat to look great in that new bathing suit. For this, as well as many other
sports-related uses, herbal remedies are safe and effective, when
used wisely. The following section and sidebar focuses on the most common
categories of sports herbs, and how to best use them.
The following chart lists my favorite herbs for common sports uses. All
of the remedies I list have either a long documented history of use or clinical
or laboratory work to support them. They are all commonly available at natural
foods stores everywhere. For a list of suggested products, write to xx.
Aerobic support eleuthero, ginkgo, alfalfa, spirulina, chlorella, pollen
Anabolics ginseng, eleuthero, pine pollen
Anti-oxidants ginkgo, greens, spirulina, chlorella, rosemary, chaparral,
Athlete’s foot tea tree oil, echinacea, black walnut, usnea
Blisters calendula, echinacea, camomile, comfrey
Circulation ginger, cayenne, ginkgo
Cleansing, elimination burdock, echinacea, dandelion, red root, sarsaparilla,
yellow dock, golden seal
Cuts, scrapes echinacea, St. John’s wort, calendula, comfrey, arnica, witch
hazel, gotu kola
Endurance eleuthero, schisandra, ginseng, ashwaganda, fo-ti (ho shou wu)
Energy releasers ginseng, eleuthero, ginger, cayenne, damiana, rosemary,
Kidney protection rehmannia, cornus, jujube, licorice, white mulberry
Muscle spasms valerian, roman camomile, California poppy, passion flower
Sore feet lavender, rosemary foot bath
Sore muscles essential oils such as wintergreen, camomile, clove
Sprains horsetail extract, comfrey, warming essential oils
Stimulants cola nut, ephedra (ma huang), green tea, coffee, yerba mate,
Sunburn St. John’s wort, calendula, camomile
Aerobic support and Antioxidants
Every cell in our body needs oxygen for optimum health. During sports
activities, our cells and tissues need even more–and extra oxygen is “burned”
as part of the respiratory process that releases energy. It has been proven
that some of the adaptogens, especially eleuthero, can help our cells utilize
oxygen more efficiently, increasing stamina and endurance–extremely important
As respiration increases, more metabolic wastes are produced, such as lactic
acid–producing a burning sensation or soreness in the muscles. During this
process, too, more highly reactive free-radicals are produced which can
cause cellular and tissue damage. Our body has free-radical quenchers or
anti-oxidants to deal with these, but cannot keep up the many new free-radicals
created during intense activity. Fortunately, there are many excellent herbal
anti-oxidants, such as ginkgo, which can protect the blood vessels, retina
and inner ear from damage, milk thistle, which prevents harm to the liver,
hawthorn for the heart, chlorophyll-rich herbs and foods such as alfalfa,
spirulina or chlorella, rosemary for the nervous system and chaparral and
lemon balm for general use. These are best taken in tea form or extract
form (capsules or tablets or liquid).
One new super-strength anti-oxidant that also provides a rich source of
protein, sterols and other essential nutrients is flower and pistil pollen.
This product has been popular in Europe for years and is now available here.
It is one of nature’s richest sources of S.O.D. (super-oxide dismutase),
a powerful anti-oxidant.
Anti-oxidants can help lessen soreness and reduce recovery time after an
intense work-out. They are best taken daily, morning and evening or right
This category of supplements is probably the most hyped and misunderstood.
I have seen a number of herbal extracts placed in this category, accompanied
by extravagant claims.
The only herbs I know of that are reported to be anabolics in the scientific
literature are eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and ginseng
(Panax ginseng and possibly American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius).
These herbs are found in most, if not all sports formulas, in a variety
of forms. They are best taken in liquid (1 dropperful 2-3 times daily) or
powdered extract form, 1-2 capsules or tablets 2 times daily.
The redness and itching caused by this fungal infection between the toes
is well-known to athletes everywhere. Not usually considered serious, in
extreme cases it can cause the skin to crack and bleed, creating great discomfort.
For treatment, it is important to keep the area dry with herbal powders
such as black-walnut hull powder. I have helped people get rid of persistent
cases by blending cosmetic clay powder (to absorb moisture) with pau d’arco
bark powder, black walnut or usnea (see reference list) powder. Another
excellent remedy is a frequent application of clay lightly sprayed with
tea tree oil. Apply these remedies at least morning and evening before bed
(wear a sock to bed, if necessary).
Mechanical Irritations that directly affect the skin to the point where
blisters form is common among runners and hikers, or even in the hands of
weight trainers. They can be painful and even interfere with the workout
or training session, if they are painful enough.
Salves, which are oil-based preparations applied externally and creams (water-based)
that have a variety of herbal extracts added to them are traditionally used
for speeding the healing process. Salves can also provide lubrication, helping
to prevent further friction damage to the skin. The most popular herbal
soothers for blisters include calendula, camomile and comfrey. For helping
to speed the healing process, calendula and echinacea are excellent.
When the muscles are being worked hard, it is necessary to keep the
blood flowing to them in full measure. Blood is vital for bringing in nutrients
to build muscle, and to remove metabolic waste products quickly. My favorite
way for increasing the activity and power of the circulation is hydrotherapy–hot
and cold water. If applied when already warm for a short time (1 to 3 minutes),
cold water can greatly activate the circulation, both generally and in specific
The best herbal circulatory activators are ginger and cayenne, which are
included in many sports formulas, but can be taken by themselves in capsules
(as a simple powder), 2 or 3 twice daily. For protecting and opening the
vessels so the blood flow is more efficient, ginkgo extract has a tremendous
track record, and I recommend it highly. It has the added benefit of being
one of the most potent anti-oxidants. For more information, see my new book,
available in most natural food stores, Ginkgo, Elixir of Youth.
When metabolic wastes build up in the body during and after a workout, the
sore muscles and achy, tired feeling is all too familiar. The best way to
reduce “down time” the body needs to remove these wastes and repair
tissue is to rest, and get plenty of wholesome nutritious food, fresh air
and allow the sweat to flow freely. Herbs can also help. The best herbal
“blood purifiers” and detoxifyers are echinacea, red root, burdock,
dandelion, sarsaparilla, yellow dock, and small to moderate amounts of golden
These herbs can be taken in powder, tea or extract form two or three times
daily, and are especially useful when combined with occasional bowel cleansing,
sweating therapy and drinking plenty of pure water. See my book, Natural
Liver Therapy for more information.
Stamina, or lasting-power is a function of one’s general health and physical
condition. Several herbs have been shown to increase the athlete’s ability
to work out for longer periods with less tiredness, as well as perform sports
events such as distance running more effortlessly and effectively. These
herbs, eleuthero, ginseng, schisandra, ashwaganda and fo-ti, are often called
adaptogens. These adaptogenic herbs have been shown to increase the ability
of muscles cells to gain access to more energy for longer periods, as well
as recover faster from fatigue after work.
Adaptogens are best taken daily for long periods, up to several months or
even longer. The average dose of the liquid extract is usually about 1 dropperful
twice daily or 1 tablet or capsule of the powdered extract twice daily.
More can be used during training or other intense physical exercise.
Adaptogens are good energy releasers, and the herbs listed in the Endurance
section can help promote the release of natural energy. Red processed Korean
or Chinese ginseng is often recommended to help increase energy levels.
Warming herbs such as ginger and cayenne help increase circulation, important
for energy access.
Long-term use of such nervous system tonics and supportive herbs as wild
oats, damiana and rosemary extracts provide excellent energy release and
many commercial formulations contain them.
Painful spasms can result from overstretching muscles, especially when they
are not warmed up or properly conditioned. The best way to avoid strains,
sprains and spasms is to warm up well and cool down properly after exercise.
This is especially important before a sports event, because the adrenalin
produced by the act of competition or because of performing in front of
an audience may make the body go beyond what it can normally accomplish.
This is what makes for great performances, but it can also lead to injuries.
Applications of hot and cold water in any form, such as compresses (4 minutes
to 1 minute cold) is one of the fastest ways to relax a muscle.
An application of an essential oil preparation works well–usually containing
one or more of the following, among others: wintergreen oil, camomile oil,
camphor, or clove oil. These penetrate and stimulate blood flow, as well
as inhibiting the pain response.
A combination of valerian, passion flower, hops and California poppy, the
herbal muscle relaxants, is one of the best internal preparations for relaxing
muscles. Take 2 or 3 droppersful of the liquid extract or 2 tablets of the
powdered extract as needed.
The above treatments are also useful for relieving sore muscles after a
An herbal soak is the best thing for tired, sore feet. After hiking for
up to 20 miles at a time with a full pack on, I have often soaked my feet
in a hot foot bath of rosemary or lavender tea. This helps to relax the
muscles and brings in extra blood to heal any strains.
A sprain is defined in Dorlands Medical Dictionary as a “wrenching
of the joint, with partial rupture of its ligaments.” Mild sprains
may be first treated with warm water, but for severe sprains, cold should
be applied for the first day or so to lessen tissue damage, swelling and
pain. Then wet and hot applications will reduce pain, but in my experience,
it is always best to alternate cold and hot (1:10). Use the same herbal
treatments mentioned in the Muscle Spasm section. Comfrey poultices are
sometimes used externally to speed this process and horsetail (Equisetum
spp.) extracts are taken internally to support tissue nutrition. There are
several excellent products available.
In this society, and many others, stimulants are often used for both work
and play. The most common herbal stimulants are coffee, tea, yerba mate,
ma huang (Ephedra sinensis), cacao (chocolate), and kola nut. While
not harmful if used properly, they are often taken carelessly when people
fail to take into account individual constitutional differences.
For a person with strong digestion and robust constitution not under a lot
of stress, moderate use of stimulants during sports activities should be
no problem. However, it is important to note that all of the above alkaloid-containing
(usually caffeine and ephedrine) herbs stimulate the stress response of
the body, which is the sympathetic, flight or fight mechanism. This can
rob the digestion of energy, directing it all to the muscles and can be
downright harmful to people with weak digestions. Also, after taking an
herbal stimulant, one must “work off” the energy directed to the
muscles with vigorous activity, or it will cause tension, stiffness and
soreness. If a person is under much stress, either job-related or any other
kind, it is best to avoid alkaloid stimulants, because they can greatly
compound the harmful effects on the body’s immune system, adrenals and general
well-being. People with high blood pressure should be very careful with
There are an amazing array of herbal stimulant product on the market, containing
the above herbs as well as ginseng, wild oats, pollen, royal jelly and so
forth. My favorite formulations are ones that contain moderate amounts of
the alkaloid herbs along with tonic herbs, such as astragalus, rehmannia,
eleuthero, artichoke, gentian and ginger to help counteract any harmful
There is sometimes a gap between fact and fiction in advertising, as most
of us realize. I have seen companies manufacturing herbal weight-training
formulas make wild claims about the following herbal extracts. Here, I have
summarized the supportable traditional and modern uses of these herbs.
Damiana known in Mexico as a mild aphrodisiac and nervous system stimulant–no
plant sterols have been found in damiana
Sarsaparilla a good “blood purifier,” especially for nitrogen-based
waste products, such as uric acid; may be a useful herb for speeding recovery
time after workouts–contains phytosterols
Saw palmetto used extensively in Europe for male and female sexual organ
and urinary tract tonification; lowers inflammation and is recommended for
prostatitis; contains beta-sitosterin
Wild Yam often recommended as anti-spasmodics for relieving uterine cramps
and colic; contains diosgenin which is an economically important precursor
to progesterone for birth-control pills; there is no evidence that phytosteroids
in wild yam act as anabolic steroids in the human body
While it is true that these herbs contain plant sterols, which possess the
same basic ring-structure as human hormones, there is no clinical or laboratory
evidence that these are transformed into human steroids in the body. In
fact, many foods we eat contain the same types of sterols, even in higher
concentrations (such as soy products). These foods are readily available,
and provide many more phytosterols for a whole lot less money.
Although I have found in my 22 years of experience with herbs and health
that there are no “magic bullets” for energy, endurance and healing
of injuries sustained during sports activities, herbs remain the most ideal
remedies for everyday situations.