Updated: November 5th, 2020

By Michael Tims, Ph.D.

Summer is coming, and with the warm weather comes more opportunities to enjoy your inner animal. When it comes to fitness, the idea is to have fun without getting hurt. But are there herbs that can help improve your performance? As a matter of fact, there are three! All have a long history in traditional medicine systems. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and ashwangdha (Withania somnifera) come to us from the Ayurvedic system of medicine out of the Indian subcontinent, while cordyceps (Cordyceps sinesis) was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Contemporary science is now catching up with these traditional bodies of knowledge. Here’s a quick run-down of how they can be used to improve your workout routine. 

Tumeric

As anyone who has begun exercising more frequently or intensely can attest, muscle soreness can be a barrier to getting a regular habit started. An anti-inflammatory agent, tumeric can help to reduce pain 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. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), another Ayurvedic

Ashwangdha

 

herb, is traditionally considered a rejuvenator, promoting deep vitality and reducing fatigue. A major, active chemical in the plant root is Withaferin A. Contemporary science has shown it reduces the stress hormone cortisol and the experience of anxiety within 60 days of use (Chandrasekhar et al., 2012). We now understand that 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, ashwaganda 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). 

Cordyceps

 

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 sinesis), is a fungus that invades and kills a specific species of caterpillar in China. The herbal medicine has long been used in TCM. It is not found locally the United

States, and wild sourced material from China is 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 excellent for increased energy and faster recovery. In the 1993 Chinese National Games, nine women athletes who were taking cordyceps shattered nine world records. This was not based on 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. 

For all these herbs, multiple products exist in the market so be sure to choose companies that are serious about quality assurance in the manufacturing process. If you have more questions, the Chinese and Western clinical herbalists at MUIH’s Natural Care Center are available to support your health and fitness goals. To request an appointment, call 410-888-9048 ext. 6614. 

Maryland University of Integrative Health has a wide range of herbal medicine programs for those who wish to gain a deep understanding of the role herbs have in supporting health and well-being. If you’d like to learn more about these and other integrative health programs at MUIH, we invite you to register for one of our informational webinars or our next Integrative Health Graduate Fair on July 27. 

References: 

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 eightweek 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 boosts aerobic exercise performance after short-term high altitude training. High Alt Med Biol. 15(3):371-9. 

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