The use of herbal and botanical products for sports performance has increased significantly over the last few decades. Although there is traditional data that supports the use of herbs for these purposes, recently modern research has proven that some herbs can effectively enhance endurance, muscle strength/size, recovery and more.
According to this evidence, it turns out that these benefits of herbs can be attributed to bioactive compounds such as Polyphenols, Terpenoids, and Alkaloids all which have many positive physiological effects. Hence, the purpose of this article is to provide a glance at the efficacy of a few popular herbs in the world of sports performance. We have selected a handful of herbs, namely, ginseng, tribulus, cordyceps, rhodiola, ginkgo biloba and cacao to review. 1
Although each of these herbs have slightly different effects, the science has found that most of the effects are likely due to positive activation of the central nervous system.
With that being said, let's dive into some of the research...
The Proven Effects of Herbs in Athletic Performance
Cacao: Theobromine and Theophylline are found in many plants like cacao (chocolate), kola and tea. In study, it has been found that athletes who used Chocolate/Cocoa form as a principal source of these alkaloids reported higher antioxidant capacity following ingestion. This is important for athletes because exercise can be very stressful and aging on the body. Consuming antioxidant rich herbs like cacao may mitigate th damage caused by oxidative stress via exercise. 2
Tribulus: Tribulus contains a few bioactive constituents primiarly Diosgenin and Protodioscin, both which can have beneficial effects on libido and physical fitness. It also contains Phytosterols like Beta-Sistosterols, which have anabolic effects promoting a more robust metabolic rate. In fact, tribulus became popular world wide after medal-winning Bulgarian athletes gave credit to tribulus for their success.
And it turns out their claims may not fabricated; recent scientific studies found that Tribulus Terrestris extract improves testosterone production in healthy males. 75, 76
By increasing testosterone levels, tribulus can promote metabolic function, energy production, reduce inflammation and oxidative damage, all which make it a potent performance enhancer. 76
Rhodiola: Rhodiola Rosea is another popular herb used in traditional medicine in Europe and Asia for its energizing effects. It contains a wide variety of chemicals like Rosine Rosarines, Rosin, Tyrosol, Rosiridin, Salidroside and Rosavin, which give it many benefits to human health. It increases the productdion of dopamine and acetylcholine, which can increase attention, memory, concentration, intellectual capacity, while improving fatigue resistance, all which equate to increased physical performance. 85
Not to mention, root extracts of Rhodiola are found to contain significant amounts of the endogenous Steroids like androstenedione and Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) as well as Pseudoendogenous Steroids. These anabolic androgenic steroid hormones can help energize the body in a healthy way and protect it from the stress of exercise. In fact, studies have found this to be true. Only 4 weeks of Rhodiola supplementation can reduce lactate levels and muscle damage biomarkers in response to aerobic exercise in trained athletes. 89
Codyceps: Cordyceps is an ascomycete fungus that has been demonstrated to improve immune function, renal function,  and regulate blood pressure by stimulating vessel dilation, by promoting CO2 production, thereby increasing the oxygen exchanges through capillary barrier. .
All of these mechanism have made cordyceps supplementation able to induce higher endurance performance, 95 and increase muscle fatigue resistance by enhancing heart rate variability and blood pressure regulation. Research has found that a tonic drink of 240 mg of Cordyceps extract has been shown to improve cardiovascular responses in healthy runners. .
Ginkgo biloba: Ginkgo biloba is one of the most popular herbs growing in the world today, next to ginseng. The active compounds in this herb are known to decrease nitric oxide and increase CO2, thereby promoting blood circulation and in particular, brain blood circulation. In fact, it has been found to activate the release of endothelium-derived relaxing factor, which can enhance muscle tissue blood flow through improved microcirculation. .
In study, it has been found that Ginkgo enhances endurance performance. 105
The Bottom Line
For any athletes interested in a truly natural way to optimize their physical performance, without the use of synthetic chemicals and harsh sports products, you now have a few clinically proven herbal recommendations to begin with. To learn more about these herbs be sure to visit our online tonic herbshop.