Adaptogens for Energy
The term adaptogen was first introduced into scientific circles by Soviet pharmacologists who were conducting scientific experiments with ginseng. They invented the term adaptogen to refer to natural plant substances that were safe to use even in relatively large quantities and produced no or minimal adverse side effects. Adaptogens have a tonic-like effect on the body, helping it to adapt to many types of nonspecific stressors like heat, cold, fatigue, emotional stress, time changes, etc.
Adaptogens increase the efficiency of the healing system or help it neutralize harmful influences of stress and overtraining. Tonics (another term often used for adaptogenic-type herbs) are natural products that do just this, and they are one of my special interests. In the sense of a strengthening, the word ”tonic” derives from a Greek word meaning “stretch.” Adaptogens or tonics stretch or tone our systems in the way physical exercise tones our muscles. Working the body subjecting it to graduated tension followed by relaxation increases natural resilience, an essential quality of health, because it determines our responsiveness to environmental stress. The more resilient we are, the greater our ability to bounce back from any kind of stress or injury.
Adaptogens are supplements for healthy, active athletes. They promote wellness, enhance resistance, help you adapt to stress and aid in quicker recovery.
Ginseng, one of the more popular herbs in America, is touted for its ability to increase vitality and provide antistress benefits. The root of this plant contains active compounds (ginsenosides) that are known to reduce stress, enhance the immune system, relieve mental and physical fatigue and help normalize body systems. Many athletes claim ginseng increases overall vitality with no negative side effects. It has been used by Russian athletes for years to improve endurance and speed recovery.
Ginseng is an old-time restorative. It works by improving general health, resistance and energy. Traditionally, Western medicine puts all types of products that claim to have restorative power in the snake-oil category. Eastern medicine is more holistic in its approach, and also is more interested in preventative medicine.
The Soviet scientists initially used the word adaptogen to refer to Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and so-called Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) is also considered adaptogenic.
In traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng is used to cool and soothe, quench and reduce fevers; Asian ginseng possesses warming properties and is used to revitalize, especially after long illnesses. In Germany, Asian ginseng products are approved for use as a tonic to take during times of fatigue, reduced concentration and diminished work capacity.
Since the early 1960s Siberian ginseng has been studied and used extensively for medicinal use. Effects on mental alertness, work productivity, and work quality have been studied
and assessed with Siberian ginseng supplementation. Results are generally positive.
Active compounds in the ginsengs are the ginsenosides. The ginsenoside content is quite variable among samples of the same species and is always different between species.
One double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in Europe involved 232 people age 25 to 60 with nonspecific fatigue. Participants were given 80 mg daily of a standardized commercial extract of Asian ginseng that also contained small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Study participants were rated with ”fatigue scores” recorded before the study, then rated after 21 days, then after 42 days. The patients generally reported improvements in feelings of fatigue, nervousness, anxiety, and poor concentration after 21 days, but these improvements weren’t statistically significant until after 42 days. The amount of vitamins and minerals was very small in each dose, so ginseng may have played a major role in counteracting fatigue in this study. However, researchers didn’t rule out that the vitamins may have had an impact on the results as well.
A dose of 100 mg of the standardized extract in capsule or liquid form two to four times daily is recommended. Long-term use has been linked to gastrointestinal upset and over stimulation in some people. Individuals with high blood pressure should avoid using ginseng, as should pregnant women.
Many Western scientists have a special dissatisfaction which they reserve for news of Eastern scientific discoveries. There is a general attitude that most Eastern scientific breakthroughs are unsubstantiated fluff which never seem to hold up under Western scientific scrutiny. Admittedly, this has often been true enough in the past to make you want to proceed with caution, but let us not confuse ginseng (and other useful herbs) with other unproven ergogenic aids.
Ashwagandha, (Withania somnifera) root is known as “Indian Ginseng.” In Ayurvedic medicine it is considered an adaptogen that facilitates learning and memory.
In a 1993 clinical study in India, fifty people complaining of lethargy and fatigue for two to six months were given an adaptogenic tonic made up of eleven herbs, including 760 mg
of ashwagandha, once a day. The participants had not responded to a vitamin and mineral supplement each of them had taken for at least two months, and they had no recognizable disease. After one month of taking the ashwagandha, mixture, the patients reported an average 45 percent improvement in their moods. Their blood plasma protein levels and hemoglobin, two factors used to measure overall health, also increased significantly, providing a statistical measurement of the tonic’s effect.
A 1994 study in India compared the adaptogenic and anabolic (ability to promote growth of lean body mass) effects of P. ginseng and ashwagandha in mice and rats. Groups of six mice were fed 100 mg/kg water extract of either ginseng, ashwagandha, or saline for seven days. On the eighth day, the animals’ endurance levels were tested by swimming. Their average swimming times in minutes were 62.55, ginseng; 82.14, ashwagandha; and 35.34, saline.
Ashwagandha is often blended with other adaptogenic herbs, such as Siberian ginseng. A typical dose is one to two teaspoons of the extract two to three times a day or one 500-mg capsule three times daily. Ashwagandha may cause gastrointestinal upset in some people.
Schisandra fruit is from a hardy, perennial vine sometimes referred to as magnolia vine or Chinese magnolia vine. Schisandra, is in the family of plants known as the schisandraceae, although some botanists place it in the magnolia family, magnoliaceae. The vine is native to the eastern portions of Siberia and the Sakhalin peninsula, as well as northeastern China, Korea and Japan.
There is growing scientific evidence of the general health benefits of schisandra. Some scientists classify schisandra as an adaptogen, a term that is usually reserved for only the highest quality herbs like ginseng.
Schisandra is also considered adaptogenic based on reviews of its traditional use and the recent scientific literature. Interestingly, animal and human studies indicate schisandra produces the effects of a stimulantwhen only one dose of a substance increases metabolism and working capacity; the effects of a tonic where repeated doses increase work capacity during and after administration of the substance; as well as adaptogenic qualities where there is an increase in unspecified resistance against various external, unfavorable influences.
In traditional Chinese medicine the schisandra fruits were used primarily for nervous conditions especially neurasthenia, a neurological disorder characterized by physical and mental fatigue, often including depression, headache and gastrointestinal and circulatory problems. Schisandra was also used for insomnia, weakness, chronic coughs and sneezing, liver ailments, as an aide in stopping diarrhea, and to inhibit perspiration. Despite millennia of traditional use, modern scientific research did not begin until the 1950s when reports indicated that the extracts of the dried fruits stimulated the central nervous system, resulting in increased mental and physical capacity.
A typical recommended dose is one to two teaspoons of the tincture two to three times per day. There are no known reports of side effects associated with schisandra use.
The root of Angelica sinensis, a plant in the carrot family, dang quai is known in traditional Chinese medicine as a blood-enhancing adaptogen (tonic) that improves circulation. Some books spell this herb as ”Dong Quai.” In this century it has come into common use in the West as a general tonic for women experiencing irregular or difficult menstruation. Chinese doctors recognize its ability to balance female hormonal chemistry, but they think of it as beneficial to both sexes and often include it in tonic formulas for men, combining it with ginseng and ho shou wu (see below). In men it is supposed to help build muscle and blood.
Dang quai is readily available in health food stores in tinctures and capsules. If you want to experiment with it, try taking two capsules of the root twice a day or one drop of the tincture in water twice a day.
He Shou Wu
The name of this tonic herb means “Mr. He has black hair,” referring to its power as a rejuvenator and maintainer of youth fulness. The root of Polygonum multiflorum, ho shou wu is a very famous Chinese tonic, believed to increase energy, as well as to nourish one’s hair. It is widely believed to be a powerful sexual tonic when consumed regularly and to increase sperm production in men and fertility in women.
A convenient way to take this herb is in a liquid formula known as Shou Wu Chih, or Super Shou Wu, that combines it with other tonic herbs and flavors. This is a very dark liquid with a pleasant aromatic taste that should be diluted: two tablespoons to a cup of hot or cold water. Drink this amount once or twice a day for at least a month to see if it gives you increased energy, strength and increased sexual energy.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica), a well-known tonic herb, is usually included in the ”energy” sections at health food stores. However, do not confuse this herb with the caffeine-containing herb, kola nut. Gotu kola, a stable of Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, is a weedy-looking herb that contains active triterpenoid compounds. It is used as a tonic in the East and West to increase energy and endurance, improve memory and mental stamina, and alleviate depression and anxiety.
In Ayurveda (an East Indian philosophy of medicine), Tribulus terrestris has been prescribed for treating impotence and as a general tonic for centuries. A preparation of Tribulus terrestris was used to treat 50 subjects complaining of fatigue and lack of interest in performing their daily activities. The results showed an improvement of 45 percent in symptoms after taking the herb.
Of greater interest were the studies where Tribulus terrestris was found to have a stimulating effect on the libido. One study showed that when healthy men where given 750 mg of standardized Tribulus terrestris a day, after five days there was a 30 percent increase in testosterone levels.
Another study of men suffering from impotence and infertility, who were once again administered a standardized extract of Tribulus terrestris, showed that their testosterone levels were increased and their libido was improved without any side effects.
A reasonable intake of Tribulus terrestris is 250750 mg a day. This can be obtained in 250-mg doses of the herb, which has been standardized to provide 40 percent furostanol saponins, which are considered to be the active ingredients in Tribulus terrestris.
Tribestrone® is a combination of three herbs: Mucuna pruriens (otherwise known as cowhage), Tribulus terrestris and ashwagandha. This combo has been around a long time, and the traditional herbal healers of India have been using it for a few thousand years to treat impotence, tremors, and in general, as a restorative tonic.
Each of the herbs contained in Tribestrone® has an interesting pharmacological makeup. Take a look at Mucuna: the seed contains L-3, 4-dihydroxyphenylalanine, otherwise known as L-dopa, a human neurotransmitter. Amazingly, the seed pod allegedly contains serotonin, another neurotransmitter. An additional interesting component is glutathione, one of the human body’s primary antioxidants.
The question is, can any of these chemicals build muscle? Theoretically, yes. L-dopa is converted to dopamine in the body, and dopamine inhibits the production of prolactin from the pituitary gland, which in turn causes more testosterone to be produced. Furthermore, increases in dopamine are theorized to lead to increased motor-unit recruitment, thereby maximizing the effectiveness of your workouts.
The second herb in the Tribestrone® combo is Tribulus terrestris. In addition to the attributes attributed to Tribulus earlier, Tribulus supposedly contains high amounts of chemicals known as harmaline alkaloids which are MAO inhibitors. MAO inhibitors prevent neurotransmitters like L-dopa from breaking down, so Tribulus supposedly lets L-dopa stay in your system a little longer, thereby optimizing testosterone levels.
Ashwagandha, the third herb in Tribestrone®, is known to have all kinds of therapeutic properties, ranging from protecting the liver to increasing stamina to reducing cholesterol to even allegedly increasing bodyweight and total-body protein.
There’s reportedly even research which suggests it has potent anti-cortisol actions, thereby preventing the muscle breakdown effects of stress and overtraining.
Tribestrone® is usually found in combinations of 300 mg of Tribulus, 100 mg of Mucuna and 100 mg of ashwagandha.
Although muscle has the capacity to use the three primary nutrients, protein, carbohydrate, and fat for fuel, it is the balance of carbohydrate and fat utilization during exercise that largely determines exercise performance and duration. With the exception of extreme intense exercise of short duration, the body uses a combination of carbohydrate and fat for fuel.
At lower exercise intensity and longer duration, fat can become the primary energy source. This in no way minimizes the critical role of carbohydrates. The importance of carbohydrates is underscored by the fact that depletion of the intramuscular stores of carbohydrate is almost always associated with muscular exhaustion.
Much of the work concerning energy utilization during exercise was conducted in the high-performance athlete. However, it is clear that the application of these findings may be extended to benefit any individual who exercises regularly to maintain weight or optimize physical performance.
An herb tested and proven in the exercise physiology laboratory that could safely enhance performance by optimizing energy utilization during exercise would offer enormous benefit to both the serious and the recreational athlete.
Ciwujia (su wah ja), a natural root grown in the northeast section of China, has been used continuously as part of traditional Chinese medicine for almost 1700 years. The usual human dose is 9 to 27 grams per day of the raw herb. Ciwujia has been shown to be remarkably safe. It has been administered to laboratory animals in multiple studies, at doses ranging from 60 to 200 times the recommended human dose.
Ciwujia has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fatigue and to bolster the immune system. This root intrigued researchers because of published reports of its use by mountain climbers. These reports describe the use of ciwujia to improve work performance at high altitudes and low oxygen conditions. Additional studies showed that laboratory animals administered ciwujia survived longer under low oxygen conditions and that ciwujia could increase oxygenation of heart muscle tissues. R
Results from extensive research, both by the Academy of Preventive Medicine, Beijing, China and the Department of Physiology, University of North Texas Health Science Center, have shown ciwujia to significantly improve workout performance through a carbohydrate-sparing action. The comprehensive research completed in China on ciwujia was conducted under the guidance of American experts, including T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist and director of the China-Cornell University Research Project which is examining Chinese lifestyle and nutrition for Cornell University.
During exercise, ciwujia shifts the energy source from carbohydrate to fat, thereby increasing fat metabolism up to 43 percent over control groups. This carbohydrate shift also improves performance by delaying the lactic acid buildup associated with muscle fatigue. In addition, ciwujia, in the research, raised lactate threshold by 12.4 percent and increased recovery following exercise as measured by heart rate.
Work completed at the Academy of Preventive Medicine, under the guidance of the Cornell group, initially was conducted with laboratory animals, however it was their human research that was most provocative. In the first trial, eight healthy male adults underwent an aerobic and anaerobic assessment using a stationary bicycle ergometer in which power was increased from 60 to 210 watts at 30-watt intervals. Each interval lasted three minutes. Subjects also had their heart monitored every minute. Energy expenditure, oxygen intake, carbon dioxide expiration, and lactic acid were measured at the end of each interval.
To assess anaerobic power, subjects started at low resistance that increased to a specified load in three to five seconds. Subjects continued at their maximum strength for 30 seconds at which the maximum anaerobic power was recorded. Following the initial assessment, each subject was administered 800 mg of ciwujia daily for two weeks. They returned to the exercise physiology laboratory for a repeat of the aerobic and anaerobic assessments.
After the administration of ciwujia there was a decrease in lactic acid levels which became more pronounced at higher energy loads. At higher workloads, for example, 150 to 180 watts, the decrease in lactic acid levels, when compared to the control group, ranged from 31 percent to 33 percent.
During exercise, carbohydrate and fat represent the primary sources of energy. A decline in the respiratory quotient (RQ) indicates that relatively less energy is produced by carbohydrate metabolism and more from fat metabolism. Following administration of ciwujia, there was a significant drop in the RQ at various energy loads. A decrease in RQ can be translated into a percentage increase in fat metabolism.
Mean increase in fat utilization in the ciwujia group over the study group was 43.2 percent. These results indicate that ciwujia offers significant advantages during exercise. By shifting the energy source from carbohydrate to fat during exercise, ciwujia increases fat metabolism and delays the buildup of lactic acid.
The anaerobic threshold was computed by plotting lactic acid levels versus power load for each group. The ciwujia group demonstrated a 12.4 percent increase in the anaerobic threshold over the control group.
To better understand the effect of ciwujia on exercise of longer duration, several studies have recently been conducted in the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, under the direction of Robert Kaman, Ph.D. In one trial, ten males underwent aerobic measurements using a bicycle ergometer. Subjects pedaled a light workload of 100 watts at a rotational speed of 60 rpms for 60 minutes. Heart rate, oxygen, CO2, and RQ were measured every four minutes. The subjects were then administered 800 mg of ciwujia daily for ten days and then returned to the laboratory for a second aerobic assessment.
The mean drop in RQ is 0.09, which translates into a 30 percent increase in fat metabolism during the hour of cycling.
There was a statistically significant decrease in heart rate. The mean before-treatment value (control) was 147 bpm, compared to 137 bpm after administration of ciwujia.
Ciwujia appears to be a safe herb for improving performance. The studies indicate that it produces a carbohydrate-sparing action during low- and high-intensity exercise. For individuals who work out on a regular basis, ciwujia appears to offer a number of significant benefits. It facilitates the utilization of fat as a source of fuel during exercise, enabling individuals to delay the onset of lactic acid induced fatigue.
The use of herbs as pharmacologically active stimulants is considered controversial by some individuals. Many health-conscious athletes avoid even the relatively mild stimulant caffeine, which has been used along with tonic herbs for thousands of years.
It has often been pointed out in Chinese medicine that using adaptogenic and tonic herbs is ”feeding a tired home,” and the use of stimulant herbs is “beating a dead horse.” Many athletes would rather use herbs such as ginseng, schisandra and ashwagandha to increase attention and alertness, instead of strong stimulants such as ephedra or guarana.
The use of stimulant herbs is one of personal choice, and they may be used sparingly to help energize you before a hard workout or other competition. Moderation, rather than reliance, is the key to using central nervous system stimulants to their best advantage.
Coffee beans are the seeds of Coffea arabica and other forms of beans grown primarily in Africa and South America. Coffee is consumed by millions of individuals seeking an energy boost, on a daily basis. The energy boost comes from the alkaloid caffeine, which acts both on the cardiovascular and central nervous system to reduce fatigue, increase alertness and improve endurance.
Although caffeine is a common ingredient in many beverages, over-the-counter medications and foods, it recently has been suggested that it cannot be called a food or a drug. Dr. Jeffrey Bland, of HealthComm, Inc., a company specializing in health and nutrition education, says it falls into a recently defined in-between category called nutraceuticals. A nutraceutical is a food-derived substance which can have pharmacological effects on the body. Caffeine fits this definition perfectly.
Caffeine can have a negative or positive effect on one’s body, depending on the dose and one’s metabolism. There has been evidence published showing that excessive and chronic use of caffeine can lead to episodes of anxiety and high blood pressure. It has also been noted that when caffeine was taken in high doses, subjects performed worse than when they were given a placebo.
When taken in excess, caffeine can also irritate one’s stomach lining, disrupt sleep, cause diarrhea, accelerate dehydration race day problems you can certainly do without. Lastly, if you are taking chronically high levels of coffee or caffeinated beverages and you try to back off, withdrawal symptoms are common.
But, as many athletes know, moderate doses of caffeine may have a positive effect upon athletic performance. While exercising, your muscles are always using some combination of carbohydrate and fat for fuel. As you increase the intensity of your effort, the tendency would be for your muscles to use a greater proportion of carbohydrate as a fuel. However, after taking caffeine in the form of cola, coffee, sports bars or tablets, fat is mobilized from fat depots, making it available to your muscle cells, and also causing a switch from using stored glycogen in great amounts for the preferred fuel to using more of the free fatty acids caffeine helps provide for the muscles to use for energy. This sparing of glycogen, one of the two major energy sources for muscle cells during exercise, makes it available for the final climb or sprint in the race.
Two milligrams of caffeine per pound of your body weight taken about thirty to sixty minutes before exercise may provide an optimal dose before long training sessions or races. A cup of drip coffee has approximately 125 milligrams of caffeine, a cup of instant coffee has approximately 100 milligrams and soft drinks have from 30 to 60 milligrams, and one No-Doz tablet contains 100 milligrams of caffeine. Therefore, for a 170 pound athlete, about three and one-half cups of coffee or a combination of caffeinated beverages and No-Doz tablets could provide an ergogenic effect.
At these levels of ingestion, caffeine’s diuretic effect causes increased loss of water through the urine thirty minutes to two hours following ingestion, which may dangerously compound your loss of water during long races. And once again, caffeine-induced acid secretion in the stomach may lead to heartburn.
Caffeine may also have other physiological benefits. For many years cyclists have been taking a small vial of espresso with ten kilometers to go in a road race and sprinters have been known to have a canister of strong coffee with them during competition on the track. Both athletes are hoping to take advantage of caffeine’s effects on the central nervous system. Caffeine has been shown to help reduce the sense of physical effort one experiences during hard exercise, or that it stimulates the brain, thereby increasing alertness. In addition, another possibility is that caffeine may be linked to the release of calcium in the muscles, which is responsible for the events resulting in force development in the muscle fibers.
In a recent study on caffeine use and motor reactions, scientists tested three groups of subjects. The first group ingested 300 milligrams of caffeine, the second group ingested 600 milligrams and the third group served as a control and ingested no caffeine. The 300 milligram group reported the fastest reaction times. A surprise to the research team was that the 600 millligram group reacted no faster than the control group. Thus, although some caffeine may boost performance, too much may prove ineffective.
Finally, you habitual coffee or soft-drinkers need to know that you probably have built up a tolerance to caffeine, which reduces such side effects as nervousness, increased heart rate and increased urinationas well as any improvement in performance.
If you can wean yourself from caffeine for a few days before a race, however, caffeine may give you a lift on race day. One recent study examined the results of caffeine dosing in coffee-drinking athletes who abstained from caffeine for four days prior to a race. The research team found that blood levels of free fatty acids were greater following the withdrawal from caffeine than they were when the athletes stuck to their regular caffeine habits. These results imply that you may gain a greater benefit from caffeine if you don’t regularly drink beverages that contain it or if you abstain for a few days.
The bottom line of this story is that caffeine is a plant-derived nutraceutical that can have pharmacological effects upon the body. Some of the effects are beneficial and others, in excess, can be harmful. As with all things related to nutrition, each individual should evaluate caffeine’s effects upon his or her body and consume it at levels that take advantage of its beneficial effects, but minimize the adverse effects of excess intake.
As we have seen, caffeine occurs naturally or is added to many commonly consumed items, including coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks, and pain relievers. The International Olympic Committee has set a tolerance limit for caffeine in the urine at 12 mg/ml, which does not prevent taking caffeine with the intention of improving performance. But, taking excessive amounts of coffee or other herbs high in caffeine may cause a positive drug test.
Guarana (Paullinia cupana) is a climbing evergreen vine native to the Amazon region. In Brazil, a carbonated soft drink made from the seeds and produced commercially is considered the national beverage. Guarana contains more caffeine than most other plants (the seeds contain as much as 7 percent caffeine). The seeds of the guarana plant are known for naturally increasing mental alertness and fighting fatigue. The seeds from this South American jungle shrub are used regularly to treat headaches, paralysis, urinary tract irritation, and diarrhea.
Guarana is often added to sports nutrition products to aid in mental alertness and for its fatigue-fighting benefits. It can also be purchased alone in capsule or tablet form or in conjunction with other herbs; follow the directions on the label as to usage.
Kola trees (Cola nitida and related species) are native to Africa and are commonly cultivated in tropical regions. The seeds are used in products such as soft drinks and other herbal stimulant products. The seeds contain caffeine (up to 3 percent) and theobromine.
Maté, or more properly known as Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), is a small evergreen holly tree that grows in several countries of South America. Tea made from the dried leaves contains about 2 percent caffeine. In recent years it has been implied that the caffeine in maté, kola nut and guarana is more healthful than that found in coffee or tea. While each plant contains a variety of compounds that may subtly alter the effects of caffeine, each of these plants is primarily a source of caffeine with all of its positive and negative effects.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an herbal stimulant that doesn’t contain alkaloids. Its stimulating action is provided by glycyrrhizin, known best for its sweetening character, and other biochemicals (flavonoids, phenolics, and triterpene glycosides). Licorice stimulates the adrenal cortex and prolongs the action of the adrenal hormones, which play a major role in regulating metabolism.
When licorice is used to ”kickstart” the adrenal system to help recovery from overtraining, it is relatively safe. However, licorice seems to lose its effect with long-term use and may cause side effects, including fluid retention, hypertension, and reduced stomach acid secretion. Excessive use of licorice, like any drug, can be quite toxic. People with heart disease, liver disease, or hypertension should avoid licorice, and it should not be used during pregnancy.
For regaining energy levels, I recommend doses of 1 to 2g of a licorice root product containing at least 4 percent glycyrrhizin three times daily for up to six weeks, then, over the course of two weeks, gradually reducing the dose, tapering off to nothing. Look for a standardized extract in the form of a liquid or capsules.
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), commonly referred to by its Chinese name, ma huang, has received so much publicity recently that it’s hard to read a newspaper or magazine without coming across the name. The herb consists of the green stems of several species of ephedra native to Central Asia. Unfortuanetly it is illegal in the United States because of it’s abuse.
Ma huang AKA Ephedra has been used in China for the treatment of bronchial asthma and related conditions for more than 5,000 years. The therapeutic value of ephedra is due to several closely related alkaloids, of which ephedrine is both the most active and the one present in the largest amount. North American species of ephedra, one of which is referred to as Mormon tea, contain no active alkaloids. Ephedrine was researched here in the United States during the 1920s and was a standard over-the-counter medication for many years.
Like all other medications, ephedra has both an upside and a downside. The alkaloid’s vasoconstricting effect makes it a useful nasal decongestant, but it also raises blood pressure and increases heart rate. It is an effective bronchodilator, but it also stimulates the central nervous system (CNS), with side effects ranging from nervousness to insomnia. This stimulation is greatly increased by consumption of caffeine or caffeine beverages such as coffee, tea, or cola.
Consequently, ephedrine has been replaced to a large extent in OTC cold and cough products by related chemicals, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine. These have a similar action but much reduced CNS effects.
In recent years, ephedra and caffeine combination products have been used as appetite suppressants, metabolic stimulants for weight loss, and athletic performance enhancers. There is considerable literature about the effects of ephedra on weight loss, with some favorable results.
Detailed studies of the herb’s effect on athletic performance do not exist. Regardless, ephedra should not be taken chronically (on a continual basis) for any purpose unless the consumer is under the care of a competent physician. Many herbal products do not list the concentration of ephedrine present. Some manufacturers almost certainly ”spike” their dosage forms with additional quantities of synthetic ephedrine.
Because of such problems in the marketplace, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) convened a special advisory group on ephedra in October 1995. That committee of experts made a number of recommendations regarding the sale of ephedra products, including strict dosage limitations, appropriate warning labels preventing chronic use, prohibition of sale to persons under age 18, and warnings to individuals with specific health risks.
Some sports federations have determined that specific amounts of ephedrine in an athlete’s system are grounds for disqualification, due to its use by certain individuals who take it for a “speed-like” effect. It is a reasonable response by authorities to stop the use of ephedra.
Unfortunately, in trying to control the use of ephedra, sports officials have not properly been informed about its health benefits. It is not a “black or white” issue, but a gray zone requiring some understanding of the medical, botanical and legal issues which encompass the use of ephedra.
I support the stand taken by many sports federations in limiting the amount of ephedrine found in an athlete’s system. But, again when used in moderate and safe doses, this well-known herb poses no adverse health risksnor is it an illegal substance. The amount of ephedra found in most products is less than that used in many OTC medications for flu, asthma and hay fever relief. Ephedra is a perfectly safe herb (if used properly) but is suffering from a campaign being waged against the use of this product in excessive ergogenic amounts. Just as with caffeine, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates when used in moderation, ephedra is a safe and effective nutritional ergogenic aid. I suggest you check with your national sports governing body for the proper use of ephedra.
Citrus aurantium, the mature fruit of the green orange, is an important herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve digestion, circulation, and liver function. Its prior uses include 1,000 years as an energizer, and its effects seem to be very similar to that of ephedrine.
Most athletes are certainly more familiar with the ephedrine containing herb ephedra (ma huang) than with Citrus aurantium. However, Citrus aurantium which contains synephrine has similar effects to other thermogenic substances like kola nut, caffeine, guarana, ma huang and ephedrine, but without the side effects common with these substances. Reported side effects are high blood pressure, tremors, insomnia and nervousness when taking many of the above substances.
Synephrine, on the other hand, may be an excellent alternative for many individuals. Animal research has found no serious side effects even when synephrine was directly infused intravenously. Also, synephrine does not act on the nervous system like ephedrine. As a matter of fact, there has been no documentation on any habit-forming characteristics of synephrine.
Synephrine is a compound used in medicine for its stimulating abilities. Clinical research has shown that synephrine has antidepressant capabilities and can increase the heart’s cardiac output. Most interesting is the ability of synephrine and epinephrine to increase cyclic AMP activity. Such an increase can be directly tied to increased metabolism, which will increase fat burning.
A reasonable dose of synephrine would be about 3 to 6 mg a day. This can be obtained in 200-400 mg of Citrus aurantium (green orange) which is standardized to provide 1.5 to 3.0 percent synephrine.
While green tea (Camellia sinensis) is better known for its immune enhancing and antioxidant properties (which will be discussed later) it is also used for its stimulating effects. The lift athletes receive from green tea comes from caffeine and caffeine-like compounds such as theobromine and theophylline.
The use of green tea, coffee, ephedra and other stimulant herbs is a way that many athletes are familiar with, but although these substances provide a burst of energy and vitality, they can ultimately deplete one’s energy stores, a phenomenon the Chinese refer to as “empty fire.” A better use of herbs for increased energy and improved “qi” would be the use of adaptogens and tonics to help build the body’s energy reserves gradually. ”Qi” in Chinese medicine refers to the life force of an herb.