When it comes to herbs with applications in sports nutrition, the sky’s the limit. However, given the plethora of options, I’m going to limit my discussion to three evidence-based herbs: ashwagandha, citrus bergamot, and shilajit.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an extremely popular adaptogenic herb in the dietary supplement industry and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine1 for over 3,000 years. Specific to sports applications, studies have shown that ashwagandha extract may be capable of increasing testosterone levels in men by about 15%-17%.2,3,4 This is significant given testosterone’s well-established role in building and maintaining muscle. Additional research has also shown that ashwagandha extract may increase muscle size and strength more than exercise alone, while helping to reduce body fat percentage by double compared to exercise alone.4 Likewise, ashwagandha extract has been successfully tested5 to enhance cardiorespiratory endurance (measured as maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2max) and improve self-assessed quality of life in healthy athletic adults. These cited benefits only scratch the surface of the expansive body of research on the health, wellness, and fitness value of ashwagandha extract.
Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that bergamot polyphenolic fractions (BPF) from citrus bergamot fruit are responsible for the majority of the botanical’s pharmacological effects.6 Among these effects is increasing nitric oxide (NO) levels which has value in the world of sports since NO can impact “muscular pump,” a term used in bodybuilding circles to describe the sensation of tight congestion, or swelling, of your muscles with blood coursing through them during weight-training sessions.7
A randomized, placebo-controlled study8 evaluated the effects of 4 weeks of BPF supplementation (650 mg twice a day for 4 weeks) on serum NO and other parameters. Results were that BPF significantly increased baseline NO levels and VO2max.
Also part of the Ayurvedic tradition, shilajit is an exudate secreted from sedimentary rocks (largely in the Himalayas) composed of rock humus and organic substances that have been compressed by layers of rock mixed with marine organisms and microbial metabolites.9 Shilajit has been shown in research10 to increase testosterone levels by 20.45% and free testosterone by 19.4%, increase exercise time by 9%-13%,11 and increase levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP; the body’s “energy currency”) by 14%12 in healthy active volunteers.
While there are many excellent herbs which can be used in sports nutrition, ashwagandha extract, citrus bergamot, and shilajit are three of the very best, with solid scientific evidence to support their benefits for promoting fitness applications.
About the author
Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, RH (AHG), is a certified nutritionist and registered herbalist with more than 40 years of dietary supplement industry experience. With a master’s degree in nutrition and a second master’s degree in herbal medicine, he has a proven track record of formulating innovative, evidence-based dietary supplements. Bruno currently serves as both the vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at NutraScience Labs (Farmingdale, NY) and professor of nutraceutical science at Huntington University of Health Sciences.
- Monograph. Withania somnifera. Altern. Med. Rev. 2004, 9 (2), 211-214. https://altmedrev.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/v9-2-211.pdf
- Lopresti, A.L.; Drummond, P.D.; Smith, S.J. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study Examining the Hormonal and Vitality Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Aging, Overweight Males. Am. J. Mens Health. 2019, 13 (2). DOI: 10.1177/1557988319835985
- Ambiye, V.R.; Langade, D.; Dongre, S.; Aptikar, P.; Kulkarni, M.; Dongre, A. Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study. Evid. Based Complement Alternat. Med. 2013. DOI: 10.1155/2013/571420.
- Wankhede, S.; Langade, D.; Joshi, K.; Sinha, S.R.; Bhattacharyya, S. Examining the Effect of Withania somnifera on Muscle Strength and Recovery: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 2015, 12, 43. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9
- Choudhary B, Shetty A, Langade DG. Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in Improving Cardiorespiratory Endurance in Healthy Athletic Adults. Ayu. 2015, 36 (1), 63–68. DOI: 10.4103/0974-8520.169002
- Jandaa, E.; Lascalaa, A.; Martinoa, C. et al. Molecular Mechanisms of Lipid- and Glucose-Lowering Activities of Bergamot Flavonoids. PharmaNutrition. 2016, 4 (Supplement): S8–S18. DOI: 10.1016/j.phanu.2016.05.001
- Andrich V. Osmotic Anabolic Signaling. Built Magazine. 2007, (in press).
- Mollace, R.; Gliozzi, M.; Tavernese, A. et al. Bergamot Polyphenolic Fraction Supplementation Improves Metabolic Balance, Endothelial Function and Maximal Oxygen Uptake in Athletes. J. Sports Med. Ther. 2018, 3, 053-061. DOI: 10.29328/journal.jsmt.1001027
- Ghosal, S. The Aroma Principles of Gomutra and Karpuragandha Shilajit. Indian J. Indg. Med. 1994, 11, 11–14.
- Pandit, S.; Biswas, S.; Jana, U.; De, R.K.; Mukhopadhyay, S.C.; Biswas, T.K. Clinical Evaluation of Purified Shilajit on Testosterone Levels in Healthy Volunteers. Andrologia. 2016, 48, 570-575. DOI: 10.1111/and.12482
- Maharaj, V.; Tripathi, P.C.; Tripathi, S.; Banerjee, D.; Islam, A. Clinical Evaluation of Safety & Efficacy of Shilajit (PrimaVie-Shilajit for Improving Human Performance in Exercise Study of Healthy Volunteers – A Placebo Controlled Study. Final Report Project No.: NAT/CR/20100901. Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama Hospital (Ayurvedic Unit), Narendrapur, Kolkata-700103. 2012.
- Ghosal, S.; Pal, D.; Bhattacharyya, S. Pilot Study on the Improvement of Human Performance with PrimaVie® as Energy Booster: Part-IV. Project No.: NAT/CHEM-7/09/06. Natreon Inc. (India), Kolkata CL-18A, Salt Lake City. Sector-II, Kolkata 700 091. 2006.