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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2013 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Athletics and Herbal Supplements

Do current products enhance athletes’ health and performance?

David Senchina

Full Speed Ahead

Promising strides have been made in our understanding of herbal supplements in exercise and sport contexts. However, several irksome and perhaps insoluble problems remain. It would be quixotic to expect a single investigative team or lone experiment to address each individual factor—and some factors may not be possible to accurately measure or may be beyond manufacturers’ control. Preparations containing several herbs and other ingredients, such as those used in traditional Chinese medicine, may compound the difficulty of identifying preclinical factors. And analytical chemists have shown repeatedly that the contents of retail herbal supplements are often inconsistent with their own product labels in terms of ingredients or quantities, even when manufacturers make claims of standardization. Given these realities, even the most diligent clinical or bench scientists cannot accurately report their findings and may unwittingly report false data.

Directions for future research are innumerable. Hundreds of herbal supplements are currently used by athletes and nonathletes alike, and most of those substances have not been clinically tested. Those herbs need to be explored further. For instance, elderberry is an herbal supplement that is increasingly popular in sports contexts, and it appears to have immune-modulating attributes similar to those of echinacea and may provide similar benefits. Compounds associated with antioxidant activities, called lectins and anthocyanins, are found in elderberry and may interfere with influenza binding to human cells. One report by Sepp Porta from the University of Graz and colleagues suggested elderberry extracts may lower exercise-induced lactate levels.

Many herbal supplements have the potential to improve both human health and athletic performance, but as the examples show, the potential benefits are greatly influenced by preclinical factors, necessitating an interdisciplinary approach to studies of herbal supplements. Scientists and sports medicine professionals are taking steps toward such an approach, which we hope will improve our understanding of how supplements work, or don’t work, to aid human performance.

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