by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D. , Frederick Hatfield II, M.S.
This article is the first chapter of their new book “Nature’s Sports Pharmacy”
“Herbalism is an ancient and venerable art that has thrived in all cultures of the world and in all historical periods, until the very recent past in the industrialized West. As a constant and vital thread in human life, it is alive and well and even in the western world there is a rediscovery of the value of herbal medicine. The rich and colorful history of herbalism is the history of humanity itself. As a branch of medicine it has occasionally found itself on the wrong side of the establishment, but this ebb & flow of acceptance is just an artifact of the changing fashions and opinions of medical and legal elites.”
The Herbalist by David Hoffman
HISTORY OF HERBALISM
Man has used herbs for over 60,000 years. Yet, in the past hundred years (since the advent of the drug age) they have been all but abandoned as viable medications by medical practitioners, particularly in the USA. This does not mean that herbs are of no use to you as an athlete. On the contrary. There appears to be a newfound interest in the healing power of herbs just beginning in the USA, although it’s not medical practitioners showing the interest. Instead, it’s lay people. Athletes, fitness buffs, health freaks. You and me. Self-taught herbalists are growing in number, much to the dismay of those formally schooled in herbalism. We believe that this interest is going to grow more, and we believe it’s going to grow particularly fast among athletes who have always sought an edge for improved performance ability. That’s why we — self-taught “performance herbalists” — are writing this book.
The earliest record of medicinal exploitation of herbs goes back 60,000 or so years to a grave in northern Iraq discovered by archeologists. They found what appeared to be a Neanderthal medicine man surrounded by the remains of eight species of flowers, most of which are used to this day by the inhabitants of the region.
Ayurveda, sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest health care system, originated in India over 5,000 years ago. While much of their knowledge is believed to have been lost over the centuries, a vast record of precise and sophisticated applications for thousands of herbs has been recorded, largely through the efforts of the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, a famous modern day “seer.”
An Egyptian papyrus document written over 3,500 years ago lists nearly 700 herbal remedies, many of which are still used today. And, somewhat later than Ayurveda, written records that document the practice of herbalism are both Sumerian and Chinese in origin have been dated back to sometime between the year 2000 and 2700 BC. The Sumerian herbal was thought to be written by an herbalist named Enlil – bani. Noted herbs in this book include laurels (which are still used today for digestive disorders as well as colds and flu); caraway (which helps menstruation and cramps) and thyme (coughs, sore throats, swelling and bruises). All of which are still recommended by herbalists today.
Shen – Nung, a Chinese emperor, is believed to be the first herbalist to record herb use for medical purposes. The document is known as Pen Tsao, which was written around 2700 BC Huang – Ti, another emperor authored the Nei Ching Su Wen sometime around the year 2600 BC Among the herbs discussed was ma huang, which is still used today to produce ephedrine, and widely used by athletes despite the fact that it is on the IOC’s list of banned ergogens (substances with known performance-enhancing properties).
The American Indians, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas also had a sophisticated herb-based healing system. In fact, most cultures throughout history are known to have used indigenous plants as medicine. So powerful did herbs appear to the ancients that they were often worshipped as gods.
The Chinese philosophy of treatment of illness, along with that of Eastern Indians, Tibetan, and Native Americans greatly differs from how we treat illness in the United States today. While we try to isolate the disease or symptoms from the person, and then treat the disease by relieving symptoms, the philosophy of these ancient cultures is to treat the underlying cause(s) of the disease itself. While we tend to take aspirin (or white willow bark) for a headache, the philosophy of the ancient culture will try to cure what caused the headache in the first place.
The current drug-based “Allopathic” medical philosophy and use of chemical drugs came about for several reasons. A paradigm shift of major proportions taking place at the beginning of the industrial revolution had spawned a reductionistic point of view among many industries, including medicine. Scientists were, for the first time ever, able to isolate specific elements and to break complex chemical compounds down into their component parts.
But let’s get real for a moment. Because of these major advancements in both science and technology, MONEY became a major force in shaping the current Allopathic medical philosophy. As chemical medicines became more popular, herbal medicines declined to the point of being known as “wives tales” or “folk medicine”. The first big blow to Herbology and Naturopathy (which combines the uses of herbs with healthy living practices) came in 1910 with the publication on the Flexnor Report. A survey given to medical schools was distributed to find schools willing to develop and research chemical drugs in exchange for financial aid. Not being subjects of high interest to naturopaths or herbalists, the vast majority of their schools were closed.
HERBS AND PEAK ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Man has been using herbs for health and healing for a long time. Greeks and Romans used them. Egyptians used them. The ancient Chinese and Sumarians used them and they probably learned how to use them from their prehistoric forbearers. But how did it all BEGIN? Trial and error? Watching sick or wounded animals instinctively eat a particular shrub? Mere happenstance? Extraterrestrial visitors? Regardless, much in the way of archeological evidence clearly proves that they did use them.
It is not our intent to talk about the use of herbs for curing or preventing disease. To do so would be a foolish replication of the work hundreds of brilliant herbalists have done so very well already. We want to talk sports, and in the harsh world of the caveman, where only the strong survived, EVERYONE was an athlete, both by natural selection and by the normal exigencies of their physically demanding lifestyle. By all accounts, the era of cave dwellers is when herbalism took root. If you will allow us to press the point that these early humans were ALL athletes in a broad sense of the term, it follows that their use of herbs was probably inspired by their critical need to perform at peak efficiency in order to survive.
We believe that one’s need to perform optimally as a critical element of one’s survival skills remained throughout history. Hard-working humans bent on surviving were conditioned to a similar extent as modern day athletes. They ran, they jumped, they fought, they pulled and pushed against rocks, brush, and game for food, clothes and shelter.
Only recently has man had little use for physical prowess as a survival skill. In other words, an important difference between cave dwellers of yore and athletes of today is that the old timers were conditioned by their survivalist lifestyles. Today’s athletes must actually make a POINT of getting into shape because their lifestyles are utterly sedentary by comparison!
If you buy into this way of thinking, you will realize that many of the herbs used for centuries by our predecessors went far beyond providing mere health or prophylaxis against disease. If you got sick back then, you would either die or get better FAST! Your life depended on you being in optimal health, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the cavemen were painfully aware of this need. Healing or recovering quickly was critical for survival far more then than now. So was endurance. So was strength. And so was speed. Indeed, many of the organized sports practiced today mimic the physical skills needed for survival by our forbearers. Running, jumping, shooting, fighting, and equestrian. The list goes on. These are the same physical attributes sedentary folks of today have chosen to eschew and ascribe instead to our athletes.
So, in the remainder of this book, several herbs and combinations of herbs will be discussed in light of their potential use by athletes. You may wonder whether an athlete who doesn’t use performance-enhancing drugs and only uses herbs would never be able to run with the “big dogs”.
We think so. In fact we think that using drugs instead of herbs for athletic performance may even be an inferior (or worse, dangerous) practice. The notion that herbs are useless compared to drugs is also nonsense since over half of the drugs used to heal your body come from herbs. Cases in point:
- Quinine, used to treat malaria comes from the bark of the cinchona tree
- Aspirin (today chemically imitated) comes from the bark of a white willow tree
- Ephedrine, used in many cold remedies, come from the ephedra plant
- Penicillin, perhaps the most famous and widely used antibiotic, is produced by fungus
- Morphine is derived from opium poppy.
Whether you know it or not, and whether the drug companies like to admit it, herbs have always been (and still are) a vital part of your health and nutrition. More to the point, they are also quite relevant to the needs of athletes seeking peak performance capabilities.
They just need to be rediscovered for their ergogenic properties as they are beginning to for their medicinal ones. While there is quite a bit of solid scientific evidence documenting the use of herbs for good health and longevity, not a lot has been written about the use of herbs specifically for the purpose of improving or maximizing athletic performance. And this is rather strange. Almost all ancient societies had their athletes and athletic competitions. They were revered as strongly then as they are today (remember, the Greeks gave quite a social status to their “Olympian” athletes). However, none has documented their training methods to any significant degree. From what we do know, sporting competition was a reflection of their society; skills in sport were similar to those used in battle and hunting. It is easy to see how wrestling, running, archery, the biathlon, the javelin and the martial arts all became competitive sports in ancient society. These sports contained the very skills of survival that the athletes used in their daily lives! In modern times, we have separated athletic performance and survival.
To see how athletes in history have used nature’s sports pharmacy to enhance their athletic performance (whether it was meaning to improve overall health or specifically to win the olive wreath) we should look at the herbs they used to develop skills. What made them run faster? What improved endurance? How did they increase strength through herbs? What made them tough enough to face a raging bull in an enclosed arena? Whatever it was, citius, altius, fortius was as much a slogan then as now among sportsmen.
Some Of The Herbs Ancient Athletes May Have Used
The ancient Sumerians described a mixture of laurels, thyme and caraway. These herbs, while enhancing digestive properties and appetite, also can help reduce swelling and sprains. Throughout the centuries and even today, these herbs have been used for the same purpose, especially among athletes.
Ancient Chinese herbalists documented over 300 herbs that could be used for vitality. Mahuang, which even today is popular (though banned) as a peak performance aid, was used to treat headaches, colds and fevers. The alkaloid found in mahuang, ephedra, also raises your heart rate, which gives the illusion of increased energy. Other herbs were used for increased energy including huang chi (also known as astragalus), bai zhu (atractylodes), dang shen (codonopsis), shan yao (dioscorea), ren shin (ginseng), da zao (jujube), wu wei zi (schizandria) and suan zao ren (zizyphus).
Herbs were used to strengthen many other functions related to athletic performance in ancient China including fu zi (aconite) for pain relief, low metabolism and nervousness; dang gui or dong quai for blurred vision and injuries; fu ling for anxiety; jin yin hua (honeysuckle) for inflammation and swelling; ge gen (pueraria) for muscle pain and tightness; ling zhi (reishi) for fatigue, stress and weakness (today it’s sometimes used to treat cancer and AIDS); and tien qi or tienchi for injury and wounds.
Modern Athletes Use Of Herbs For Performance Enhancement
Despite the dearth of hard evidence, it is not unreasonable to speculate that athletes in ancient cultures used such herbs, perhaps even while they were otherwise “healthy.” More contemporaneously, athletes from the former Soviet Union used herbs extensively in their training and contest preparation. Dr. Ben Tabachnik, former head of the Scientific Research Group for the Soviet National Track and Field Team, described the use of herbs, especially adaptogens, by athletes in the former Soviet Union:
“The use of plant- and animal-based adaptogens by Soviet athletes is a common practice. Western athletes on the other hand approach herbal preparations with much skepticism. they have been led to believe natural medicines are not as effective as synthetic drugs. This is a great error, and western athletes have missed out on a classification of sport pharmacology that is safe and effective.
“Adaptogens are prescribed by Soviet sports physicians to athletes in order to prepare them for an enormous amount of work during high-load training cycles. Soviet coaches recognize that the more an athlete trains, the more he or she has a chance of winning high level competitions, so they train them very hard. From one training session to the next the athlete must replenish depleted structural and psychological reserves.”
The Soviets had found that such adaptogens as eleutherococcus senticosus (also known as Siberian Ginseng) and schizandra chinensis (berries from a type of magnolia plant) are useful in aiding athletes to adapt to the stress caused by long trips and flights involving jet lag (rapid translocation syndrome) as well as to training and competition stresses.
Of course, an athlete’s lifestyle doesn’t help matters. They have succumbed to a world of quick fixes resulting from a do-or-die mentality. How often is it heard on the sidelines, “Hey Doc, I pulled my hamstring. Gimme a shot or something! I gotta finish the game!” How many athletes routinely go underground to find a black market source for uppers, anabolic steroids or painkillers? Sadly, the answer is most of them!
Using drugs in this manner is only a short-term solution to your athletic problems. Herbs, on the other hand, can gently coax your body to adapt to the stresses of training, give you greater energy, mental focus and healing powers. Drugs often create side effects or health problems while trying to ameliorate symptoms, whereas the only side effects you’re likely to experience with herbs will be improved systemic functioning.
But not all the time! Just as performance enhancing drugs are banned not only by all of the sport governing bodies, but also by federal law, some herbs are so powerful that they’ve been banned as well!