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 Herbal Medicine: Sports Herbs  

Sports Herbs
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 for athletes.

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 before workouts.

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.

Athlete's foot
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 areas.

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.

Cleansing, elimination
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 seal.

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.

Energy releasers
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.

Muscle spasms
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 workout.

Sore feet
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 stimulants.

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 effects.

(Excerpted from Let's Live Magazine)
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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