Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants are strongly associated with sports performance in today’s society. They are used in sports to reduce tiredness and to increase alertness, competitiveness, and aggression. And the perception is often that a good performance is associated with a sense of heightened stimulation. Stimulants are more likely to be used on the day of a competition; however, they may be used in training, to allow the intensity of the training session to be increased.
Historically, many famous athletes have used stimulants. In baseball, Babe Ruth often used amphetamines before each game (and alcohol). The ancient Incas would drink cocaine tea before running. Today’s sports nutrition supplements are loaded with stimulants.
CNS stimulants have psychotropic effects that may be perceived to be ergogenic (enhancing). Many are prescription drugs, such as Ephedra alkaloids, and there are issues regarding their appropriate therapeutic use. Recently attention has been given to their widespread use by athletes and their potentially side effects; despite the lack of evidence regarding any ergogenic or real performance benefit. Stimulants can be more dangerous than anabolic steroids, because stimulants can cause heart attacks or stroke, while anabolic steroids affect the body over a longer period.
Chinese Adaptogenic Herbs
There is actually another side of neural enhancement that is not often spoke about. Some of the best performances, whether it be in sports, or other activities, have come from people who describe being in a flow state – everything is calm, clicking perfectly. Gymnasts, world class cyclists, runners and professional motocross racers all speak about focus and flow being the most important. In fact, over-stimulation of the brain leads to more mistakes during an activity.
Instead of over-stimulating your mind, why not do the opposite and calm your mind to let it focus better and enter that important flow state. Your best performances can come from your mind. Adaptogenic herbs are well known to decrease stress and anxiety and let you enter that flow state. Herbs like ashwagandha, rhodiola and cordyceps increase the cognitive energy of the mind, but yet at the same time decrease stress and anxiety.
A typical functional definition of an adaptogenic herb is:
1) an adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient and contains no synthetic chemicals
2) an adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body— an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents
3) an adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor
Adaptogenic herbs are something that increases the body’s resistance to stress, trauma, anxiety, and/or fatigue. Nationally known Chinese herbalist, Roger Drummer writes about powerful examples of athletes who have benefited from using his formulation of Chinese Adaptogenic herbs, called Tianchi. Roger helps several athletes, including Olympic athletes who use adaptogenic herbs. Many high profile cyclists, motocross racers and collegiate athletes use adaptogenic herbs as well. In one case, he describes a nationally ranked high school runner who suffered horribly from pre-competition anxiety and at times could not even function properly. After starting adaptogenic herbs, she was able to decrease her stress and anxiety, overcoming her fears and actually started to improve in competitions; she recently earned a NCAA scholarship for track.
Professional motocross racer, Dakota Tedder explains that Tianchi helps him to stay calm before the gate drops as he races to the first corner with 40 other motorcycles. Professional cyclists Jordan Bryan and Kristin Mcgrath also describe Tiacnhi during their morning routines.
Some common adaptogenic herbs include:
1) Rhodiola rosea (“golden root”) – is an adaptogenic herb that increases mental clarity and protects against stress-related fatigue and burnout; and offers immune and blood sugar support. An added benefit of Rhodiola is its antidepressant and antianxiety effects.
2) Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) – also known as Indian ginseng, is a plant in the Solanaceae family. One of the most famous adaptogenic herbs, is has a profound effect on regulating the hypothalamic pituitary axis which is the basis of the stress response. Ashwagandha extract is known to help with recovery. Consider using it especially if you’re doing strength training, power training, muscle gain, etc. And finally remember that ashwagandha has many other benefits such as stress-relieving, antioxidant, anti-cancer properties, and some relief for exercise induced soreness.
3) Astragalus root (astragalus membranaceus) – aids in the body’s natural ability to adapt to stress, bolstering the immune system so the subject stays well while helping to regulate normal blood sugar levels and alleviate insulin resistance. Stable glucose levels are a mainstay of mental focus. It’s used to help strengthen digestion and lung function, for recovery from illness and as an energy building herb. Astragalus is an excellent herb for maintaining the Protective Chi circulating on the surface of the skin helping to ward off seasonal illness. If the cold wind seems to bother your neck, it’s said to be a sign that your Protective Chi is weak.
4) Cordyceps or Eleuthero (cordyceps sinensis) – Cordyceps is a fungus that is said to slow aging and take a load off the adrenals by supporting the immune system, balancing the inflammatory response, and helping to stabilize blood sugar. Cordyceps is an adaptogenic herb that can help protect against the negative effects of stress, while decreasing fatigue, enhancing mental clarity, helping to balance blood sugar, and even perhaps supporting bone remodeling as well. It is also used by athletes and cosmonauts for its blood oxygen enriching properties. It takes over 40 pounds of cordyceps root to make one pound of powdered extract.
5) Reishi Mushroom – known as the “Mushroom of Immortality,” and “Herb of Good Fortune.” It is the most highly revered herb in China for its ability to brighten the mind and spirit. Historically used for boosting immunity, liver detoxing, blood purifying and building, and is known as a potent stress reliever.
6) Green Tea – one of the most powerful plant-based antioxidants, green tea builds immunity, increases circulation and is a best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown it to be valuable for memory enhancement. Most of green tea’s antioxidant polyphenols are from a class called catechins of which EGCG seems to dominate. It has been described as nature’s most potent anticancer agent.
Another common question is if the herbs are permitted or “legal” from a competition standpoint. I asked Roger Drummer this question and he states that he has many professional and collegiate athletes who use his Tianchi blend of adaptogenic herbs and there has never been any problems. And all of these athletes are heavily tested by anti-doping organizations. In addition, when I was the team doctor for the Chinese professional cycling team, Champion Systems, there were several high profile Asian athletes who used Chinese adaptogenic herbs and they were tested many times throughout the year. In addition, we never had any problems with quarterly blood tests. Finally, a very well-known American product from First Endurance called “Optygen” and “Optygen HP” contain Chinese adaptogenic herbs and thousands of very well-known athletes use this product, including Tour de France favorite, Fabian Cancellara.
So the next time you prepare for an athletic event, skip the drink with the stimulants and instead prepare your mind with a proper mixture of adaptogenic herbs. This will increase the synergy between your mind and body, to achieve your personal best. My recommendation is to use Tianchi, as it is the closest you’re going to get to a ready-made package of Chinese adaptogenic herbs. Roger and Zack go to great lengths using only the highest grade herbs with high extraction ratios. Check out their website for more information.
To your health