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Can Herbal Supplements Help You?

If you are looking to enhance immunity, manage a health concern, or improve your athletic performance, you may be interested in trying herbs in your nutrition program. Herbs have a long history of use and it is conceivable that some herbs may be of benefit. However, quality research on herbs-both for health effects and performance-enhancement on the field is very limited; there is insufficient scientific support for the use of any herbs for management or improvement of a health condition. Still, many studies on a variety of herbs have noted potential benefits, including immune enhancement, decreases in inflammation, and the potential ability to recover faster from common colds and other ailments.

Regulation of Herbs

In the United States, herbs are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as dietary supplements as part of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). Herbs are not required to be standardized, and there are different interpretations of what standards should be followed. So, there is little consistency among different batches of products from different manufacturers. In other words, it is often impossible to know what is contained in a given package containing herbs.

Be careful when ingesting herbs with unproven ingredients that have unproven effects on health and performance and may cause harmful side effects.

Specific Herbs, Potential Benefits, and Examples of Safety Concerns

The table below highlights some common herbs many of you may be interested in using. Because herbs often contain potent natural chemicals, there is the potential for interaction with other herbs, foods, and medications.

If you want to incorporate herbs into your overall nutrition and performance plan, working with a health care team to monitor potential side effects and interactions between herbs and other herbs or herbs and medications is strongly recommended. Key elements to watch out for include: ensuring that an herb is safe, confirming that it contains the recommended amounts of active ingredients, and determining the appropriate dosage. The resources listed below provide sound information to help answer these key questions.

Arnica Mountain tobacco, leapord?s bane, wundkraut Muscle pain, stiffness, osteoarthritisMay increase effects of anticoagulants
Astragalus Huang chi, huang qi, milk vetch Weak immune system, fatigueMay interact with immunosupressant drugs
Cayenne Capsicum red pepper, African chilies Musculoskeletal pain, osteo-arthritis, digestive problems Digestive disorders, skin irritation
Cordyceps Caterpillar fungus, dong chon xai cao, semitake Weak immune system, poor endurance performance May reduce blood sugar levels
Devil?s Claw Grapple plant, harpagophytum, wood spider Muscle pain, digestive problems, fever May interfere with antidiabetes drugs
Echinacea Purple coneflower, black Sampson, Indian head Weak immune system, colds, infections May interfere with immunosuppressants
Elderberry Elderberry syrup, American elder Colds, flu, fever, weak immune system, excess body water May interact with diuretics or laxatives
Ginger Zingiberis rhizoma, ginger root, Jamaica ginger Nausea, vomiting, motion sickness, osteoarthritis May interact with anticoagulants and antidiabetes drugs
Ginseng Chinese ginseng, ciwuija, Russian root Poor endurance performance, low energy, weak immune system May interfere with anticoagulants
Gotu Kola Indian pennywort, hydrocotyle, kaki kuda Varicose veins, edema May interfere with hypoglycemic medications
Guarana Guarana gum, zoom cocoa, Brazilian cocoa Excess body fat, lethargy Contains caffeine
Rhodiola Golden root, Arctic root Lethargy, fatigue, poor endurance May interact with other herbs
Valerian Mexican valerian, garden heliotrope, tagara Insomnia, anxiety, depression May interact with other sedatives
Willow Bark White willow, purple osier, bay willow Fever, muscle pain, osteoarthritis May interact with anticoagulants


Many herbs found on the market today have a long history of use as traditional medicines, especially in Asia. The challenge for consumers, athletes, coaches, and health professionals is finding reputable research and resources to support or refute the claims for herbs. Remember the elementes to look for: ensuring that an herb is safe, confirming that it contains the recommended amounts of active ingredients, and determining the appropriate dosage. The resources listed below provide sound information to help answer these key questions about herbs.


American Botanical Council www.herbalgram.org

The American Botanical Council website offers herbal information, health professional training, and additional resources on herbs and health. Full service requires a yearly fee.

Consumerlabz www.consumerlab.com

The ConsumerLab website provides independent test results and information on a wide range of supplements and herbs. Companies may voluntarily have their supplements tested through ConsumerLab.com. Lists of supplements (including herbs) that pass the ConsumerLab testing protocol are found on the site. Full services require a yearly fee.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Information Resource: About Herbs, Botanicals, and Other Products www.mskcc.org/aboutherbs

This well-designed website provides objective information for health professionals and the public, with clinical summaries, adverse effects, interactions, and potential side effects of a wide range of herbs and supplements.

National Library of Medicine PubMed www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez

This website is an excellent resource for researching the studies behind herbs and their potential benefits.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database www.naturaldatabase.com

This database provides comprehensive reviews of herbs and supplements including potential uses, safety, effectiveness, mechanism of action, adverse reactions, interactions with herbs, supplements, and drugs, and dosage information. Particularly helpful is the ability to search specific brands of supplements and printable education sheets for athletes and patients. Full services require a yearly fee.

Source: Sports Science Exchange Supplement, Volume 18 (2005): Number 1. Gatorade Sports Science Institute. www.gssiweb.org
Adapted by Editorial Staff, June 2006

Last update, July 2008


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