The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs sent a number of sports reeling. Not surprisingly, today’s athletes and athletic trainers are way more careful about supplement use. This has created a wide-open playing field for a variety of safe, legal alternatives like herbal remedies. And here’s the best part: they’re available to us just like they are to pro athletes.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a steady increase in sales of herbal supplements. Americans spent close to $8 billion in 2016 on plant-based supplements, fueled in part by athletes and daily gym-goers who are turning to natural remedies for enhanced recovery and more energy.
When an athlete’s body manages stress effectively, it opens the door for enhanced muscle building and a better metabolism. But physical stress can sometimes outweigh recovery, triggering issues like muscle soreness and prolonged fatigue. Many athletes now consume herbal supplements in order to enhance their rigorous workouts, speed-up their recovery time and gain an edge over competitors.
That being said, the number of botanical supplements available can be really mind-boggling. Across the globe, there are nearly 1,400 herbs said to benefit athletes in one way or another. Here are a few that have gotten popular with athletes, and the science behind them.
Superfoods for fitness
Superfoods pack a powerful punch of nutrients, antioxidants and vitamins. Think of them kind of like an all-in-one package for people who want to push their bodies to the limit. These superfoods can be blended into a smoothie, or you can pick up a high-quality green superfood powder that contains probiotics along with digestive herbs and enzymes.
- Kale contains flavonoids, which reduce high blood pressure, keep inflammation at bay and offer cardiovascular protection. Collagen synthesis depends on abundant Vitamin C in the body, and kale has even more of this nutrient than spinach. It’s also a solid source of Vitamin K, which plays an important role in blood clotting.
- Acai, native to the Amazonian region, is popular because of it sky-high antioxidant levels. Whether you’re having it in juice or powdered form, this berry can help keep your cholesterol at a healthy level.
- Beetroot makes the cut because it helps naturally enhance nitric oxide in the system—paving the way for improved blood flow, better oxygen levels and muscle-building prowess. Small group studies showed cyclists who consumed beetroot supplements performed better and used less energy. Not a bad combo.
- Chia seeds are a popular super ingredient because they can help boost energy levels and deal with post-workout inflammation.
Adaptogenic herbs for athletic prowess
When you work out, your body releases adrenaline to deal with the stress of exertion. This allows you to concentrate and improve muscle performance. As you begin to reach the point of fatigue, adaptogens can help delay exhaustion, improving upon your body’s resistance to a vigorous workout. Here are a couple of adaptogenic herbs that are known to work.
- Licorice root regulates cortisol levels in the bloodstream. It has also been linked to immune system health, fat loss and increased energy.
- Siberian ginseng and golden root have shown anti-fatigue properties that reduce stress and keep burnout at bay. This can be extremely helpful for athletes who need to recover quickly from day-to-day workouts.
- Cordyceps are antioxidant mushrooms. Although they don’t fall completely under the adaptogen umbrella, they do contain certain adaptogenic properties. In one study, adult males who consumed cordyceps extract experienced improved cortisol regulation post-workout. Their fatigue levels dropped, as well.
Other fitness herbal remedies
While herbal protein powders like hemp and pea are slowly becoming quite popular, there are other herbs that can help you improve resilience to daily workouts.
- Fried or desiccated arnica flower heads may help relieve muscle soreness, joint pain and sprains. While this herb has long been used to treat sports-related injuries, make sure you speak to your doctor before picking up arnica liquid or ointment.
- The FDA lists the kola nut as “generally safe” to consume. This West African fruit packs a lot of caffeine, and when taken as a supplement can increase your energy levels while helping you stay alert during workout sessions.
- The combination of lemon balm and valerian has produced positive results on insomnia and sleeping disorders. Proper nutrition and rest are vital to an athlete’s performance, and these herbs might just help with the latter.
The pale purple coneflower is known to positively modulate the immune system. Elderberry, common among athletes, is known to have similar effects. The list of herbs that can improve performance and physical health goes on and on. Could there be a day when powerful herb supplements completely replace the unsafe, controversial performance-enhancing substances of the past?
It’s too soon to tell. But in the meantime, more athletes are getting vocal about the ability of herbs to help them operate at their best.