At SportFuel, we often are asked about herbal supplements. Can they help me? Do they really work? Are they safe? And, are they banned in my sport? The answer is “maybe”, so knowing which high–quality herbs may be a smart addition to your individual health and performance regimen makes sense.
Plant compounds have been used throughout history to improve health. If fact, it’s estimated that at least 43,000 plant species have been used as some form of medicine (2). Below we’ve shared four effective herbs that we often use to support different aspects of performance – Indian ginseng, kava, turmeric, and ginkgo. Keep reading to find three tasty recipes – kava tea, ginseng chicken soup, and a turmeric golden milk throwback recipe.
Herbs are powerful and may interact with medications and other supplements and may also not be safe to use in certain medical conditions, so please always consult your licensed health care professional and physician before using. We at SportFuel have seen the healing properties of herbs maximized with the support of a strong foundational diet. The articles below are written in the context of adult populations only and should not be generalized to younger pediatric populations or senior citizens. Please reach out if you have any questions or would like to know if these would be a good fit for you.
Indian Ginseng (Ashwagandha)—Stamina and Focus
- Ashwagandha is an extremely versatile “adaptogenic” herb, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress. It can also help reduce fatigue, support energy levels, reduce inflammation, and balance cortisol levels. It acts as an antioxidant that may improve physical and cognitive performance (3,16).
Where it can be found:
- Ashwagandha is specifically native to India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa (17).
Ashwagandha and Athletic Performance:
- Athletes are almost constantly under physical, mental, emotional, and environmental stressors. Chronic, unmanaged stress takes a heavy toll on the body and leaves it vulnerable, leading to poor recovery, and greater risk of injury and illness. Due to its adaptogenic properties, Ashwagandha can be utilized to help modulate the body’s stress response. It has also been shown to promote deep sleep, support immunity, and maintain good memory. All of these benefits may then have a direct effect on performance. Good sleep + stress support + strong immunity + good memory = optimized recovery and focus, two properties all athletes desire to stay competitive in their sport (16).
Forms of Ashwagandha and where to find it:
- Ashwagandha is most commonly found in herbal teas, but is also available in supplemental format (4). Check out our Wellevate store to access some of the Ashwagandha supplements available. Find out about the rest of the herbs on our list in the rest of this article on our website below!
- May help reduce anxiety, achieve restful sleep, and relax both smooth and skeletal muscles (7, 8).
Where it can be found:
- Kava comes from the Pacific and Hawaiian Islands (7).
Kava and Athletic Performance:
- Recovery, in short, is when your body heals. Healing requires an extended period of time between training and events, and with an athlete’s training and game schedule, we know time is usually tight—at best, you might only have a night or 8 hours or less to sleep and thus recover. This makes the need to prioritize the time you do have to sleep and heal that much more important. With Kava’s ability to relax muscles, promote restful sleep, and reduce anxiety, it’s a no-brainer when it comes to optimal recovery for athletes.
Forms of Kava and where to find it:
- Kava can be found in tea or supplemental form. The supplemental forms are concentrated forms of Kava, so it’s better to start with small doses. Reach out to us for Kava supplements we know and trust, and for personalized dosing instructions. It’s also important to purchase teas that have the kavalactone content listed instead of being listed as a “proprietary blend.” Brands we like that carry Kava teas include Yogi Tea and Tazo (18).
- We like the convenience of Kava in the form of Kava root, concentrate, and micronized Kava that make it easy to blend or mix it on the go.
Turmeric – Anti-inflammatory
- May alleviate inflammation (11).
Where it can be found:
- Turmeric is used in many different cuisines around the world and primarily grows in South Asia.
Turmeric and Athletic Performance:
- Most athletes use every joint in their bodies to train, some getting more wear and tear than others depending on the sport, training, and the number of years they have been at it! Curcumin is the active substance in turmeric that provides its major anti-inflammatory benefits. Generally speaking, it is a solid addition to any recovery plan to help reduce overall inflammation.
Forms of turmeric and where to find it:
- It is the main ingredient found in curry powder and commonly offered in a variety of teas. It can also be found as curcumin extract, a paste for skin, or a capsule.
- Turmeric can be found as a spice in the spice section at your store. A tea brand called Rishi also carries turmeric tea, gluten-free ramen noodles, and powder. There are many supplements that contain turmeric, but one we’ve had a lot of success with is Turmero by Apex Energetics or Thorne Meriva 500 for those looking for an NSF for Sport Certified–option. Please reach out if you’re interested in ordering some.
Ginkgo – Brain Health/Circulation, Circulation, and anti-inflammatory
- Reduces inflammation and helps with focus and short-term memory (14,3).
Where it can be found:
- Gingko has been used in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. It comes from one of the oldest tree species that dates back to the Mesozoic Era (aka “the age of the dinosaurs”)!
Ginkgo and Athletic Performance:
- Ginkgo Biloba helps reduce inflammation at the cellular level, and can reduce a marker of inflammation called CRP (C-reactive protein), making it another herbal superstar recovery supplement for athletes (14). Athletes in training are always generating inflammatory compounds and then quelling them during the recovery period. Ginkgo has also been shown to help improve short-term memory and focus (3). So, if your focus during a game or workout is not where you want it to be, this might be a good addition for you along with proper fueling.
Forms of Gingko and where it can be found:
- Ginkgo nuts or leaves may be used to create supplements that come in capsule, tablet, or liquid form. Interested in adding ginkgo to your regimen? Contact use for personalized dosing instructions and our favorite ginkgo supplements.
We use many other herbs to customize each athlete’s program, including stars like Rhodiola and other ginsengs. Please reach out to us if you’d like to learn more about using herbs to optimize your energy, recovery, sleep, and performance.
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