Herbal Medicine for Sports: A Review

J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Mar 15;15:14. doi: 10.1186/s12970-018-0218-y. eCollection 2018.


The use of herbal medicinal products and supplements has increased during last decades. At present, some herbs are used to enhance muscle strength and body mass. Emergent evidence suggests that the health benefits from plants are attributed to their bioactive compounds such as Polyphenols, Terpenoids, and Alkaloids which have several physiological effects on the human body. At times, manufacturers launch numerous products with banned ingredient inside with inappropriate amounts or fake supplement inducing harmful side effect. Unfortunately up to date, there is no guarantee that herbal supplements are safe for anyone to use and it has not helped to clear the confusion surrounding the herbal use in sport field especially. Hence, the purpose of this review is to provide guidance on the efficacy and side effect of most used plants in sport. We have identified plants according to the following categories: Ginseng, alkaloids, and other purported herbal ergogenics such as Tribulus Terrestris, Cordyceps Sinensis. We found that most herbal supplement effects are likely due to activation of the central nervous system via stimulation of catecholamines. Ginseng was used as an endurance performance enhancer, while alkaloids supplementation resulted in improvements in sprint and cycling intense exercises. Despite it is prohibited, small amount of ephedrine was usually used in combination with caffeine to enhance muscle strength in trained individuals. Some other alkaloids such as green tea extracts have been used to improve body mass and composition in athletes. Other herb (i.e. Rhodiola, Astragalus) help relieve muscle and joint pain, but results about their effects on exercise performance are missing.

Keywords: Alkaloids; Ergogenic aid; Medicinal plant; Physical activity; Polyphenol.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkaloids / pharmacology
  • Astragalus Plant / chemistry
  • Athletes
  • Caffeine / pharmacology
  • Cordyceps / chemistry
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Ephedrine / pharmacology
  • Ginger / chemistry
  • Ginkgo biloba / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Panax / chemistry
  • Performance-Enhancing Substances / pharmacology*
  • Phytotherapy
  • Plant Preparations / pharmacology*
  • Plants, Medicinal / chemistry
  • Rhodiola / chemistry
  • Sports*
  • Tribulus / chemistry


  • Alkaloids
  • Performance-Enhancing Substances
  • Plant Preparations
  • Caffeine
  • Ephedrine