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


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.


  • Bahrke, M. S., W. P. Morgan and A. Stegner. 2009. Is ginseng an ergogenic aid? International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism 19:298–322.
  • Berg, A., et al. 1998. Influence of Echinacin (EC31) treatment on the exercise-induced immune response in athletes. Journal of Clinical Research 1:367–380.
  • Blumenthal, M., A. Lindstrom, C. Ooyen and M. E. Lynch. 2012. Herb supplement sales increase 4.5% in 2011 despite still-weak economy, herb sales continue multi-year growth. HerbalGram 95:60–64.
  • Castell L. M., L. M. Burke, and S. J. Stear, eds. 2010–2013. A–Z of nutritional supplements (series). British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44–47.
  • Goulet, E. D. B. and I. J. Dionne. 2005. Assessment of the effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus on endurance performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism 14:75–83.
  • Hall, H., M. M. Fahlman and H. J. Engels. 2007. Echinacea purpurea and mucosal immunity. International Journal of Sports Medicine 28:792–797.
  • Nieman, D. C. 1997. Risk of upper respiratory tract infection in athletes: An epidemiologic and immunologic perspective. Journal of Athletic Training 32:344–349.
  • Petróckzi, A., et al. 2008. Nutritional supplement use by elite young U.K. athletes: Fallacies of advice regarding efficacy. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 5:22.
  • Schoop, R., S. Büechi and A. Suter. 2006. Open, multicenter study to evaluate the tolerability and efficacy of Echinaforce Forte tablets in athletes. Advances in Therapy 23:823–833.
  • Senchina, D. S., J. E. Hallam and D. J. Cheney. 2013. Multidisciplinary perspectives on mechanisms of activity of popular immune-enhancing herbal supplements used by athletes. Frontiers in Biology. 8:78–100.
  • Senchina, D. S., J. E. Hallam, A. S. Dias and M. A. Perera. 2009. Human blood mononuclear cell in vitro cytokine response before and after two different strenuous exercise bouts in the presence of bloodroot and Echinacea extracts. Blood Cells, Molecules, & Diseases 43:298–303.
  • Senchina, D. S., et al. 2012. Alkaloids and endurance athletes: A research review and some demonstrations using bloodroot extracts and white blood cells from cyclists and runners. Track & Cross Country Journal 2:2–18.
  • Senchina, D. S., N. B. Shah, D. M. Doty, C. R. Sanderson and J. E. Hallam. 2009. Herbal supplements and athlete immune function—what’s proven, disproven, and unproven? Exercise Immunology Review 15:66–106.
  • Shergis, J. L., A. L. Zhang, W. Zhou and C. C. Xue. 2012. Panax ginseng in randomized controlled trials: A systematic review. Phytotherapy Research. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4832.
  • Whitehead, M. T., T. D. Martin, T. P. Scheet and M. J. Webster. 2008. The effect of 4 wk of oral echinacea supplementation on serum erythropoietin and indices of erythropoietic status. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 17:378–390.
  • Whitehead, M. T., T. D. Martin, T. P. Scheet and M. J. Webster. 2012. Running economy and maximal oxygen consumption after 4 weeks of oral Echinacea supplementation. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26:1928–1933.

comments powered by Disqus


Other Related Links

David Senchina

Subscribe to American Scientist