Tel/Fax 1 541 474 2454

Herbal dietary supplements are advertised as being "natural, safe and effective" products that can decrease body fat, elevate blood levels of testosterone, increase muscle mass, enhance energy, improve strength and stamina, and generally improve health and athletic performance. However, the advertising that promotes their use is essentially unregulated. Labels on dietary supplements can be misleading. Containers may include substantially more, but usually less, of the listed amounts of ingredients, and other substances may be added – some of which can cause failed doping tests for athletes, that are not on the label. Athletes and non-athletes must be alert to the potential risks of using herbal supplements and be realistic about the likelihood that they will enhance exercise performance.

Here are some questions to be answered:

1.   Can the package label be trusted to accurately describe the contents of the container when an herbal supplement is purchased in a retail store or over the Internet? Not necessarily! For example, Gurley and colleagues (2000) analyzed the amount of ephedra in 20 herbal dietary supplements and found large discrepancies in the contents. Half the products varied by more than 20% from the amount listed on the label, and one product contained none of the active ingredient. Researchers reported that label claims for ephedra were not indicative of the quantity present, which ranged from 0 to over 150% of the amount listed on the label.

As another example of how athletes, or anyone else for that matter, cannot trust the labels on dietary supplements, the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee in 2002 found that of 634 non-hormonal nutritional supplements tested from 13 different countries, 94 (14.8%) contained substances that were not listed on any label and that could have led to a positive doping test.

Most people buying supplements trust the information on the label to be correct and have no way of checking it for accuracy. Even if you can find a laboratory to do the necessary analysis, there is no way to get your money back.

Safety and effectiveness requirements are bypassed by these dietary supplements and can go to market with no guarantee that the product is what it says it is on the label since there is no legal standard for processing, harvesting or packaging as do prescription and over the counter drugs and food additives.

2.   What about Chinese ginseng and claims of a wide array of beneficial effects on exercise-related performance? There are some studies that show beneficial effects on a range of performance tests, but there are even more reports that show no effects on performance. It is important to understand the differences in the quality of the evidence. Many of the studies showing positive effects were not well designed. Often there was no placebo group, and subjects were aware that they were being given something that might improve their performance. The number of subjects in these studies were often small, so the results may have been just due to chance. It is much harder in the world of science, to get a negative finding published, so most studies that show no benefit are never made public. Better research has failed to show any benefits of either Chinese or Siberian ginseng (which is not a true ginseng) on athletic performance.

3.   What are the most popular "anabolic" herbal supplements? What is the evidence that any of these “muscle building” herbs actually helps build muscle and increases strength? Popular anabolic herbs include yohimbine, smilax, tribulus, and gamma oryzanol. The plant steroids found in many of these herbs cannot be converted by the human body into testosterone or other anabolic steroids. Claims that these agents can increase muscle mass have little or no scientific basis.

Yohimbine has also been documented to cause other adverse reactions, including nerve paralysis, fatigue, stomach and kidney disorders, seizures, and death.

Any product on sale that had a significant anabolic effect would be subject to controls by agencies that license the use of such drugs. The fact that the "anabolic" herbal supplements are not controlled is a clear indication of their lack of effect.

4.   The herb Mahuang or Chinese ephedra (Ephedra Sinica) contains ephedrine and related compounds that have stimulant effects similar to those of adrenaline (epinephrine). Does herbal ephedra have any effects on exercise performance? Is it harmful? There is no solid evidence that herbal ephedra can improve athletic performance, but the use of ephedrine-containing products can result in serious side effects, including death. The International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association ban ephedrine, so athletes should not even consider using ephedra or other products that contain ephedrine. Ephedrine can raise body temperature and increases the risk of developing a heat injury during exercise in warm weather. Most proponents of ephedra use stick to their guns and claim adverse reactions only occur in people who have pre-existing medical conditions or who take more than the recommend amounts. Of interest however, are the accounts of autopsies conducted on individuals who have died, with ephedra use being a suspected cause of death.

5.   Are there any other herbs used by athletes that have properties or problems that should be of interest? Many products are marketed as "natural" and can be purchased without a prescription. Please don’t assume that herbal products are safe and without side effects. The risk of side effects is further increased when certain herbs are combined with prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications. There is also concern about the number of products being marketed as energy drinks that contain various herbs, caffeine, and ephedra.

Reference: Sports Science Exchange Roundtable, Volume 13 (2002) – Number 4

Author/speaker and an expert in ”Sports Performance Enhancement”. Jack Medina is available for speaking engagements, consultation and personal training of athletes in various sports, professional and amateur. Jack has written a new book, “The Winning Edge: Fueling & Training The Body For Peak Performance” with Dr. Roy Vartabedian, an internationally known New York Times Best Selling Author of the “Nutripoints” program for optimal nutrition. Both books are available online at Jack also has a monthly ezine (newsletter) available free which can be subscribed to on his website. All subscriber’s addresses will be confidential and not sold or given to any other organization or group.

This article contains copyrighted material. Copies of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author only when this bi-line is included with each copy. Jack can be reached at