Outside magazine, July 1995
For those who dismiss herbal supplements as the stuff of Mia Farrow's disappearing acts in Alice, there's a small body of recent research showing that the athletic benefits of herbs like ginkgo and Gotu kola are hardly hokum. The studies show that certain herbs can repair damaged muscle tissue, purge exercise-induced toxins, increase oxygen uptake, and reduce joint inflammation. As for bolder claims that some herbs boost stamina and overall health, the jury's still out. But with or without the endorsement of science, athletes are increasingly working herbs into their diets.
"More and more athletes are getting beyond their odd fear of herbs and learning how to use them for performance and recovery," says former professional triathlete Colleen Cannon, who has taken ginkgo as well as Siberian and American ginseng regularly for the last nine years and says she's healthier--and faster--as a result. A number of prominent sports nutritionists, however, question the research that's been done, particularly since much of it takes place outside the United States. "As far as I'm concerned, it hasn't been proven that herbs help athletic performance," says Kristine Clark, director of sports nutrition at Penn State. "Or we'd all be popping them."
There's also the worry that, because herbs have enticingly natural-sounding names, people will abandon the cautious measures they apply to other medications. Herbs shouldn't be taken as lightly as a shot of wheatgrass juice or a sprinkling of bran. Not only are herbal products priced like drugs, but your body recognizes them as such; some will even make a drug test come up positive. "Read up on how to use them, buy your herbs from a well-respected company, and heed the recommended dosage and any warnings on the label," advises Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Boulder, Colorado.
Here's a whole-foods grocery browser's guide to some of the more common herbs used by athletes.