Herbal Medicine and the High Performance Athlete

By Erin Alberda, LAc


In an era of both doping scandals and unprecedented access to supplements (that all promise to make you younger, faster, stronger), how does the competitive athlete navigate what is safe?
erin horseA little bit of personal history – up until 2012 I was an active national and international-level athlete.  I competed as a member of the US Equestrian Team at events throughout North America as well as Australia, including as an individual at the 2010 World Championships.  During this time, I carefully learned to navigate the waters of how I could safely incorporate herbal medicine and naturopathic supplements into my regime to help me keep my energy levels up, my immune system supported, and ultimately give me a competitive edge without risking a positive test for performance enhancing drugs or masking agents.

acu couple purchasedThe first critical step is to partner with a knowledgeable practitioner.  A 2013 article in BMC Medicine (Newmaster et al. BMC Medicine 2013, 11:222) outlines the unfortunate reality that out of 12 companies tested that are promoting herbal products in North America, only 2 companies had products that contained the solely the herb constituents – all of the other products contained fillers, adulterants, contaminants, or other ingredients not listed on the label.  The US Anti Doping agency has evolved their policies to acknowledge that more and more athletes are turning to supplements.  Their “Supplement 411” similarly describes the high risk of contaminants, and presses that the only way to be truly safe, is to avoid them altogether.  A knowledgeable practitioner will have access to high-quality products, and will have time-tested relationships with the product suppliers.  Additionally, they will be your partner in your performance – with vast understanding of health and wellness, they will guide you through the best protocol for your unique situation (and isn’t that better than blindly picking out bottles?).

BikesThe second critical step is to know your risk tolerance.  If you are subject to random screens in and out of competition, do you feel comfortable including herbal supplements in your daily program?   If you have followed Step  1, you should feel confident, but it is ultimately your pee in the cup.  Acupuncture, massage, spinal manipulation, kinesiotaping, biofeedback, and even vitamin/nutritional IVs are all options that may improve your performance without the risk of taking herbal supplements while in the testing pool.  If you are only subject to testing during competition, would you be comfortable taking herbal supplements out of competition, and stopping a few weeks before?

In my own case, I utilized regular vitamin B12 injections and homeopathy in and out of competition.  During my training (out of competition), I incorporated Chinese herbal supplements that tonified Qi and Blood, as well as adaptogenic herbs that improved my stress response.  I worked with a Naturopath, as well as a nutritionist to ensure I was getting all of what I needed out of my diet and supplement regimen.  I also regularly received acupuncture and bodywork.

If you are interested in learning more about herbal medicine can be a safe and effective ally in your training program, make an appointment to visit one of our AIM providers today!

About alpine integrated medicine

AIM is based on the idea that when we martial our collective expertise, we can achieve great health outcomes for our patients. A truly integrated clinic, AIM's practitioners work together to provide an experience tailored to each individual. We believe in the power of natural healing, combined with the most current medical science available.
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