Adaptogens are the wellness trend that have caught the attention of bendy yogis and functional medicine guru’s… but now Olympians and strength athletes may be hitting up their spice racks, too.
Using herbs as performance enhancers in sports isn’t as out there as it may seem. During the Cold War, Soviet scientists studied found that using rhodiola (an adaptogen) boosted an athletes endurance and decreased their recovery time. Plus, some more recent research has found that adaptogens may have the potential to reduce stress, improve attention, increase endurance, and fight fatigue in athletes.
But can these herbs actually boost your fitness performance? We dug into the science. Below, find the five of adaptogens that exhibit some promise.
Try to say that four times fast. Generally speaking, adaptogens help protect the body against the effects of mental and physical stress, according to a research published in Pharmaceuticals, and that’s this herbs main potential benefit. A review published by the African Journal of Traditional, Contemporary, and Alternative Medicines found that consuming ashwagandha can modify cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, which may be beneficial after a short-and-quick workouts like Fran, Amanda, or Grace which jack your cortisol levels up quickly, says biohacker Dave Asprey, founder & CEO of Bulletproof.
What began as a morning staple for golden-milk-loving-yogi’s has become a go-to for some gym rats. That’s partially because it’s high in antioxidants like curcumin. One study published in the European Journal of Clinical Physiology found that consuming with 2.5 grams of curcumin two times a day reduced symptoms of post-workout delayed onset muscle soreness.
However, there is no evidence that turmeric directly enhances performance during an athletic event. “Turmeric supplements may be indirectly beneficial for athletes in terms of improved recovery, reducing risk of injury and muscle soreness, and improved cognitive function when under stress, but they shouldn’t be relied on as the only method of recovery,” says Jim White R.D.N., ACSM Exercise Physiologist, Owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
Thanks to power smoothies and teas, ginger isn’t just for sushi rolls, anymore. That’s because consuming half a teaspoon of ground ginger root may help decrease DOMS by 25 percent, according to one study published in Phytotherapy Research. Researchers hypothesize that this is likely due to the phytochemicals it contains such as gingerol, shogaol, and zingerone. A second study published in The International Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that gingerol may reduce the inflammation, just like curcumin does. So noshing on the root could have some benefits especially after exercise.
Ever notice that ginseng is listed as an ingredient in energy drinks that claim to improve work efficiency, stamina, and endurance? There may be something to it.
While currently there has been no conclusive evidence that the herb directly influences fitness capacity, and it should not be relied on as the sole ergogenic aid for athletes, some studies were promising. Findings presented to American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, showed that cancer patients who took pure ginseng capsules had more energy than those who took a placebo after four weeks. While the findings were done on individuals with an existing medical condition, they do suggest that ginseng might be an effective energy booster in healthy people, too. And one study published in Journal of Ginseng Research found that it may boost the immune system, which could benefit athletes by keeping them healthy.
This turnip-looking adaptogen may boost libido, but that isn’t all it does. One study published by the Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine found that it may boost physical and mental energy, reduce stress, alleviate depression, and calm anxiety. And according to research published by the International Journal of BioMedical Sciences, maca root works directly upon two regions of the brain (the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland) to help boost focus.
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The research that has been done is limited by short-length trials and small sample sizes, so further research is needed to scientifically confirm the ergogenic benefits of maca, says White. “From observing those who have used maca for performance, I believe that this supplement has potential for aiding an athlete due to increased energy and stamina,” he says.
Besides having an interesting name, one review published in Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that holy basil may help counteract stress and help heal wounds. The review went as far as to call the herb “liquid yoga” because like yoga, holy basil may have a calming effect that leads to clarity of thought, along with a more relaxed and calm disposition. Other studies also published in Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that holy basil improved the swimming times of laboratory animals. The research is still in its early stages, and holy basil may have some side effects for humans, including slower blood clotting, so we’re still waiting for a verdict here.
Strength and conditioning coaches are split over the effectiveness of the herbs because much of the science on if adaptogens really help is inconclusive and limited. Exercise physiologist Pete McCall doesn’t recommend them to his athletes because he believes there are less expensive, better researched ways to improve your fitness performance, like coffee. Similarly, exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS-D, CSPS-D, NSCA-CPT-D, FNSCA, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Lehman College in New York and author of Strong and Sculpted, says he believes that if you don’t know for certain that a supplement is going to help with performance, it’s best to leave it out.
But some experts are more hopeful. Adaptogens may help the body adapt to stressful situations, and exercise can fall into that category. Adaptogens make sense for short or long workouts, and strength and endurance athletes, says Asprey. For example, after a short WOD, you want your body to reduce the amount of cortisol being produced so that you can recover more quickly, he says. But for endurance athletes who are going to be running for five, six, seven hours, adaptogens may help keep stress levels steady so that you don’t go out too hot, or fade mid-run, he explains.
The verdict: if you’re so worried that they aren’t recovering properly, it might be worth simply adding an extra rest day to your training schedule, which has been shown to help muscle repair, as opposed to adaptogens which may be shaky on the research. And if you do want to give them a try, remember that adaptogens on their own will be ineffective at increasing your performance and recovery. You also need sleep, proper fuel, and a smart training plan.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image: @emmaferreiraaa on Instagram, photo by @mr_thrusters