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herbs-for-athletes.jpg“Ripped,” in other words, looking like you have 3% body fat covering a very muscular physique, might be a bit overstating my intentions with this article, which are to offer insights into those herbs that will assist you in optimizing your bodymind for the enjoyment of athletic pursuits. “Clean” refers here to minimizing toxicity and congestion in your bodymind, which these herbs and pursuits naturally assist us in.

Healthy Inflammation Response

A significant amount of the stiffness and soreness that arises after workouts or sporting events comes from an inflammatory response as the bodymind tries to both digest the congestive metabolic wastes generated by intense exertions and accelerate any healing at the levels of torn and damaged muscle cellular tissue. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a fantastic ally at this moment. Just take a few extra Turmeric capsules with your post-workout hydration. Western science has confirmed this age old technique, for instance a study earlier this year showed how Turmeric assisted the body to speed the recovery of injuries as well as optimize muscle mass.  

Because Turmeric has been used for millennia to build blood, clean blood and move blood, one of my nicknames for this epic herb is “The Herbal Version of an Acupuncture Session.” Indeed, if you are exercising in order to get your body, blood and mind moving, taking Turmeric will automatically amplify your intentions.

Of course, supporting healthy inflammation response is important during athletic activity to assure the most efficient flow of nutrients, oxygen and metabolic waste in and out of the muscle and organ tissues. So what I recommend is to start a couple of hours before the activity with 2-3 capsules of Turmeric and then also take it during and after the strenuous period. The dose depends on the amount of strain I will likely experience, and though I tend to use bulk Turmeric dissolved in Pear or Pomegranate juice, you can also take capsules if that is easier.

You may not consider “barn building” a sport but with all its weeks of heavy lifting and scampering around it is like power weight lifting while traversing an obstacle course and running a steeplechase marathon all at the same time. A friend of mine, who is in his 60s, recently not just survived building a large barn, but thrived through it and came out much stronger and fit afterwards. I asked him how he managed to accomplish the 40 day “workout” more fitting for a 20 year old and he told me that all day and every day he consumed a blend of Turmeric, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Punarnava (Boerhavia diffusa).

Indeed, these three grounding and stabilizing roots/rhizomes are some of the most potent and renown herbs to support healthy inflammatory response, and have the additional benefit of improving the endurance and depth of strength as well.

Another herb, White Willow Bark (Salix alba), is such a great ally for this that it is the basis for the formula that cornered the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory market for more than 70 years: Aspirin! And let me not forget Arnica!

All these herbs are best taken with a glass of Tulsi Ginger tea, yet another readily accessible team of epic allies of assuring healthy inflammatory response.

Lungs & Prana

The world knows that Americans these days tend to want their quick fixes. We like to “just take a pill” and get immediate results. If there are any miracle commodities that will help you quickly be the greatest athlete you can be I would say it is either Prana, the fundamental “Energy of Life,” also known as Chi, or Tejas, the “Focused Life Force.” More on Tejas in a moment.

For thousands of years Tulsi-Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) has been a “first-reach herb” for all things lungs, from supporting the body during fall, winter and spring seasonal challenges to assisting optimal flow of Prana through the lungs and skin.

Another one of the herbs used successfully for the lungs and Prana is Pushkarmool (Inula racemosa), the powerful Himalayan Elecampane included in our Breathe Free formula. This high altitude ally is great for people of all ages and is especially dear to Yogis who know of its connection to some of the greatest Yogi/Athletes ever.

Heart & Tejas

I believe in supporting core vitality first, and not just the outer facades of physicality. So the first things that need to be “ripped” are the spirit, the mind and the inner organs. Professional athletes commonly state that the fitness of the mind and spirit is just as important as that of the muscles. More often than not, it is clearly a competitive driving focused resilient spirit that is the key to being triumphant.

According to the experience of many, as well as in traditional models, the heart is not just about moving the blood but is also home to the Spirit of victory. This sentiment, this truism, is readily confirmed in the vernacular with phrases like “the Olympic spirit,” or “an indomitable brave heart,” and many other epithets and quotes. In Yoga the Spirit of a person is often described as Tejas and in Traditional Chinese Medicine it is known as Shen. Bravery, confidence, fortitude, resolution and perseverance are all words that point to the strength of one’s Spirit and by extension, to one’s ability to excel athletically.

This ever ready organ, this seat of consciousness, this one facet of you which never gives up within your life, this precious heart of yours is clearly the epitome of the nexus of mind, spirit and muscle. If you want to optimize your heart’s structure and function at all levels, including Spirit/Shen, mind and physicality, the most important herb to use is Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), renown for millennia for being the best cardio-tonic herb and for promoting the warrior’s braveheart. In fact, this herb is named after a warrior, Arjuna the Pandava, who according to legends just may be the greatest warrior who ever lived.

All its cardiotonic activities, which have been known for thousands of years in several wellness traditions, have also been confirmed in western bioscience literature where, in recently perusing hundreds of research papers on Arjuna , I counted over 30 different mechanisms of supporting heart health described, from supporting healthy levels of blood lipids and blood sugars to maintaining healthy response to inflammation in the heart’s arteries.

Besides Arjuna , my favorite herbs to bolster Heart/Spirit/Shen include Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and Ashwagandha. As far as practices for the heart, Yoga and Ayurveda recommends to keep the company of those who are both brave and kind, to simply and fearlessly give and forgive, and to always keep the mind state of “Victor” and transform any residues of “Victim” into That.

Mind & Focus

Of course, how sharp, clear and focused the mind is depends a lot on the density, clarity and fortitude of our Spirit, which, let’s hope, is the master of our minds.

Here are five herbs that I tend to be especially connected to when it comes to improving the focus facet of mind and cognitive function:

  • Tulsi-Holy Basil (via improving cognitive sharpness and digestion and supporting adrenal function)
  • Eleuthro (Eleutherococcus senticosus) works via increased energy and adrenal function)
  • Trikatu (the three pungents that spark digestive capacity)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis is a sharp warming digestive)
  • Mints (as with Tulsi and Rosemary, yet more cooling)

Note that many herbs that work on physical digestion also support cognitive alertness and focus. Also, have fun with Tulsi-Holy Basil, the Rosemary and the Mints as they can be used as an Essential Oil and in Teas, Shampoos, Creams, and in Herbal Hair Oils.

Muscle & Endurance

Of course, as the phrase “mind over matter” depicts, a fair share of endurance is the result of a strong mind and resilient Spirit that together can readily extend endurance 20 or 30% if not 100%, and so those herbs that strengthen the mind, spirit and muscles are key to the successful athlete. These include the earth element anabolic adaptogens like Ashwagandha, Arjuna, Eleuthero and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea).

Ashwagandha literally means “the grounded strength of a stallion” which leaves no doubt about its ability to increase athletic prowess. As Russian scientists and athletes proved long ago, Eleuthero is food for champions. And amongst many possible accolades appropriate here, Rhodiola’s ability to deeply oxygenate the blood and deep tissue is as great for altitude sickness as it is for pushing endurance and success to its limits. Astragalus is also worthy of this list of the earth’s top endurance enhancing herbs.

Though not a thick heavy stalwart root or bark like these other adaptogens, the metabolic boosting Tulsi-Holy Basil leaves have been shown to support drastic increases in endurance while minimizing post work-out recovery time. Tulsi-Holy Basil is especially important for athletes as it is a strong digestive at all levels, and so is readily digested, especially as a Tea, while assisting in the digestion of these otherwise “heavy” tonic herbs. So regardless of the herbs consumed, they tend to be more bioavailable when taken with Tulsi Tea.

Ripped Hormone Balance

Many athletes who work too hard run the risk of disturbing their hormone balance, especially as the levels of body fat plummet into the single digits, and especially for women. The problem is that many hormones are made from fats, or lipids as they are called in the context of our physiology, so as our lipids decrease the amount apportioned to hormones may also decrease as the nerves and brain are more important recipients of these key nutrients.

Luckily some of the best herbs to ensure athletic prowess are also great sources of phytoestrogens and phytoandrogens, like Shatavri (Asparagus racemosus) and Ashwagandha, respectively.

Deep Hydration

If I could offer only one herb to ensure deep hydration I would without hesitation choose Shatavri, an herb famous for its ability to supply deep juice, especially to the reproductive organs.

For deep hydration at the organ and nervous system level you first need the right “raw materials” which include

  1. Water at room temperature
  2. Essential fatty acids like those found in the “omega oils” like Hemp, Borage, Flax and Evening Primrose

You also need the right tools, amongst which are:

  1. High quality digestives that can work on the level of the organs, especially the kidneys and the nervous system, like Tulsi and Cinnamon
  2. Herbs that can deeply restore and reorganize kidney and adrenal function, like Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa), Bhumyamalaki (Phyllanthus niruri) and Punarnava, as found in our Liver Kidney Formula.

And then you need the right intelligence:

  1. Healthy and astute kidney health (This is why the Liver Kidney Formula is great and why we take anti-stress adaptogens as stress is usually the main factor in attenuated kidney function)
  2. Herbs with the innate intelligence of hydration, like Shatavri, Aloe gel, Chia, Licorice, Cinnamon, Slippery Elm, etc

The Athlete's Diet

When it comes to an athlete’s diet the key phrase is “high nutrient density” which means a plant based diet.

Many consider the triathlete to be the greatest athlete of all, which is why they earn names like “Iron Man.” Certainly it is not everybody who can swim 2.4 miles, then bicycle 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles, all in under 9 hours. Because it has the right balance of macronutrients while absolutely burgeoning with micronutrients and Prana, it is not surprising that in many cases of the top tri-athletes, like Dave Scott, they become voracious consumers of fresh, moderately-cooked, organic and biodynamic, whole-food plant-based diets. The optimal meals include daily portions of the high protein deep greens like kale and collards, fresh herbs like parsley and coriander, gluten free grains including quinoa, and metabolism boosting fats like flax.

According to the lens of Ayurveda, if animals are included in the diet they are sustainable wild or organic free range because it is not the nutrients in them that are valuable, per se, as nutrients are denser in plants, but more their Prana, their animal Shakti that boosts ours.

Of course, you can and should eat and drink many herbs as part of your diet, for instance Tulsi Brahmi Tea and remember to add Turmeric to your smoothies, marinations and sautéed veggies.


I know we are into our outer appearances and that is OK to some extent as long as we don’t let the exterior rule the interior, especially our identification. And speaking of appearances, they can be deceiving because being “ripped” is a combination of both the amount of fat on your body and the amount of muscle tone you have. So two people can have equal muscle tone and fitness, and though the one with lesser body fat will look more “ripped,” the one with more balanced body fat will experience more wellness.

One will note that many of the herbs that I refer to in this article are anti-stress adaptogens, like the Tulsi-Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero and Rhodiola. This makes sense as these are the superfood-like herbs that help us cope with all stresses of the “no pain no gain” scenarios that all of us, and especially athletes, can find ourselves within.

Thank you,

July 2012, West Marin