By Michael Tims, Ph.D.
With the arrival of warmer weather and longer evenings comes more opportunities to enjoy your inner animal. When it comes to fitness, the idea is to be fit without getting hurt. But can herbs improve your performance? Three herbs have been proven to do this! All have a long history in traditional medicine systems. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) derive from the Ayurvedic system of medicine, while Cordyceps (Cordyceps Sinensis) is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Research from laboratory and clinical science is only now catching up with this empirical science of traditional knowledge. Here’s a quick run-down of how they can be used to improve your workout routine.
Muscle soreness can be a barrier to getting as far as a regular fitness program. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory acting herb that can help avoid this initial discomfort as well as improve physical function (Chin, 2016) during and after both aerobic activities and anaerobic activities such as sprinting or weight lifting. A dose of 150 mg 12 hours before exercise has helped reduce the loss of maximal voluntary contraction and enzyme activity associated with muscle damage during muscle strengthening exercise (Tanabe, et al., 2015). Dosing can range from 160-320 mg, three times per day. No side effects have been noted.
While you are worrying that your six-pack and biceps are not what they once were, consider a more holistic approach to your summer of fun and fitness. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), another Ayurvedic
herb, is traditionally considered an adaptogen, promoting vitality and reducing stress and fatigue. Withaferin A is a major, active chemical in the plant root. Science has shown it reduces the stress hormone cortisol and the experience of anxiety within 60 days of use (Chandrasekhar et al., 2012). chronic psychological stress can be the source of inflammation and physical dysfunction (Cohen, et al., 2012). More specific benefits are noted below:
Over eight weeks of regular use combined with resistance exercise, ashwagandha improved absolute strength (Singh, et al., 2010), upper and lower body strength, recovery and serum testosterone levels (Wankhede, et al., 2015).
For endurance-based exercise, eight weeks of supplementation led to better blood hemoglobin, time of exhaustion, and improved oxygen intake (Malik et al., 2013; Shenoy et al., 2012).
A general dose of 500 mg, three times per day is suggested. No side effects have been noted.
Believe it or not, the last herbal supplement, Cordyceps (Cordyceps Sinensis), is a fungus that invades and kills a specific species of caterpillar in China. Herbal medicine has long been used in TCM. It is not found locally the United
States and wild-sourced material from China are extremely expensive. So it is grown as fungal strains in the laboratory. When you are looking for the product, C-4 strain, is the most consistent lab supplied material to date.
The supplement is helpful for energy and recovery. In the 1993 Chinese National Games, nine women athletes who were taking cordyceps shattered nine world records. This was not based on the use of performance-enhancing substances that occurred later during the Olympics held in Beijing. The effect of cordyceps seems to be based on enhanced fat mobilization, sparing glycogen usage during prolonged exercise (Nicodemus et al., 2001). Studies have also found increased aerobic capacity over a two-week training period at an altitude of 2200 meters, specifically the time to exhaustion (Chen et al., 2014). A dosing regimen of 500 mg, three times per day is recommended.
Chin, KY. (2016) The spice for joint inflammation: anti-inflammatory role of curcumin in treating osteoarthritis. Drug Design, Development and Therapy.10:3029–3042.
Tanabe, Y et al. (2015). Attenuation of indirect markers of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage by curcumin. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115(9), 1949– 1957.
Chandrasekhar et al. (2012) A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. 34(3):255-262.
Cohen, S. et al. (2012) Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. PNAS.109(16): 5995–5999.
Singh, SJ, et al. (2010) Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. Int. J. Ayurvedic Res. 1(3): 144-149.
Wankhede, S. et al. (2015) Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. Nov 25;12:43. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9.
Malik et al. (2013) Effect of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root powder supplementation on the VO2max and hemoglobin in hockey players. International Journal of Behavioural Social and Movement Sciences. 2(3): 91-99.
Shenoy et al. (2012) Effects of eight-week supplementation of Ashwagandha on cardiorespiratory endurance in elite Indian cyclists. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 3(4): 209– 214.
Nicodemus et al. (2001) Supplementation With Cordyceps Cs‐4 Fermentation Product Promotes Fat Metabolism During Prolonged Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. (33)5 - p S164.
Chen et al., (2014) Rhodiola crenulata and Cordyceps Sinensis based supplement boost aerobic exercise performance after short-term high altitude training. High Alt Med Biol. 15(3):371-9.