Sports Nutrition and Ayurvedic Herbs
Ashwagandha and Terminalia arjuna May be Safe and Natural Alternatives to Enhance Athletic Performance and Endurance
Numerous Ayurvedic herbs have been clinically tested regarding performance enhancement, post-workout recovery time, and prevention of muscle damage. Performance enhancement property of Ayurvedic herbal extracts is due in part to their antioxidant potency and their century-long traditional use as effective drugs to treat human ailments across a broad-spectrum of afflictions.
Physical activity and exercise is one of the main wellsprings of health and well-being. Exercise can stimulate our immune system and provide us with vitality, strength, and stimulate the natural healing mechanisms of the body. In society, enormous sums of money are spent on attending athletic events and a great deal of research has been conducted on our athletes regarding performance enhancement using natural compounds.
Ayurvedic herbs provide a wide spectrum of benefits, from potent antioxidant capacity to protecting tissues and muscles against free radical damage provoked by intense exercise. Regular exercise reduces inflammatory signaling molecules, including INF-γ, TNF-α, and IL-6. Exercise also stimulates DNA repair through a hormesis-like mechanism, where a tiny amount of DNA damage produces a massive over-response in DNA repair mechanisms and over-expression of endogenous antioxidant enzymes that include superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. The Antioxidant Response Element (ARE) is exquisitely sensitive to changes in free-radical levels caused by exercise and orders the production of these enzymes when needed to maintain cellular homeostasis. The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise specifically protects the cardiovascular system by reducing adhesion molecules that could otherwise cause blood clots, while also lowering C-reactive protein and homocystine levels, biomarkers associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk.
Following are a few natural ingredients that are considered useful as sports nutrients:
Ashwagandha, also known as Withania somnifera or Indian winter cherry, has been an important traditional herbal medicine for over 3,000 years. It is an integral part of several formulations meant for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions (e.g., arthritis, rheumatism), and as a general tonic to increase energy, improve overall health and longevity.
In an 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 57 young men with no prior experience with resistance training were randomized into a treatment group of 29 persons and a placebo group of 28. Subjects in the treatment group consumed 300 mg of Ashwagandha extract twice daily, while the control group took a starch placebo. Both groups underwent resistance training for 8 weeks and measurements were made at the end of week 8. The primary efficacy measure was muscle strength and secondary measures were muscle size, body composition, serum testosterone, and muscle recovery time. Muscle recovery was evaluated using serum creatine kinase levels as a marker of post-exercise muscle injury.
The Ashwagandha-treated group had greater increase in muscle strength on the bench-press exercise (46. 0 kg vs. control 26.4 kg) and the leg-extension exercise (14.5 kg vs. control 9.8 kg), greater muscle size increase of the arms (8.6 cm vs. control 5.3 cm), and chest (3.3 cm vs control 2.0 cm). The subjects receiving Ashwagandha also experienced a greater reduction of exercise-induced muscle damage as seen byt he higher stabilization of serum creatine kinase levels (higher is better) (i.e. 1,462.6 micromol/ liter vs. the placebo group 1,307.5 micromol/liter).The Ashwagandha-treated group had higher testosterone levels at the end of 8 weeks (Ashwagandha group 96.2 ng/dl vs. placebo group 18.0 ng/dl), along with a greater decrease in body fat percentage.
The most striking observation of the study was increased levels of testosterone in the Ashwagonda-treated group (from 18.0 to 96.2 ng/dl). This level had previously been seen only in the Indian (brown variety) of Fenugreek extract-treated men with 98% testosterone increase compared to a placebo group after six weeks of weight training.
This Ayurvedic herb is commonly known by the name Arjuna, and is a powerful heart tonic that is commonly used in various Ayurvedic preparations by traditional Ayurvedic practitioners to support cardiovascular health. It is known to increase the energy potential of the body due to the ability to increase the rate of oxygen consumption by cells.
Effects of Ashwagandha and Terminalia arjuna extracts on Exercise Performance
A clinical trial involving 40 normal, healthy young people of both sexes were divided into 4 groups: the first group receiving a standardized extract of Ashwagandha 500 mg, the second group receiving a standardized extract of Terminalia arjuna bark extract 500 mg, and a third group receiving both Ashwagandha and Terminalia arjuna extracts, 500 mg of each. The fourth group received placebo capsules. All the subjects continued the regimen for 8 weeks.
The Ashwagandha-treated group had increased velocity (breathing power) and VO2 max (lung oxygen capacity) increases over the placebo group during exercise. The Terminalia arjuna group had increased VO2 max and lowered resting systolic blood pressure. In the Ashwagandha and Terminalia arjuna-treated group, the improvement was seen in both VO2 and lower post-exercise diastolic and systolic blood pressure. The lowering of post exercise blood pressure signifies better recovery and healthier blood pressure. The study author concluded that “Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) may therefore be useful for generalized weakness and to improve speed and lower limb muscular strength, and neuromuscular coordination. Terminalia arjuna may prove useful to improve cardiovascular endurance and lowering systolic blood pressure. Both drugs appear to be safe for young adults when given for mentioned dosage and duration.”
Ayurvedic herbs have been mostly overlooked regarding their applications in the performance enhancement field. Recent human clinical trials have revealed the potency of Ashwagandha and Terminalia arjuna extracts in increasing weight training results, cardiovascular risk reduction in exercise, increased lung oxygen capacity, and lower resting blood pressure effects. Hence, Ayurvedic herbs should be re-examined by both consumers and supplement formulators as novel ingredients to include in exercise-based products.