Our ancient relatives traversed this planet for thousands of years, allowing them to develop knowledge that present-day science is still catching up to. In this post, we’ll look at some traditional folk medicines to see if their purported performing-enhancing benefits hold up to the test of time and science. You may recognize some of these herbal substances as most of them are used in today’s popular sports supplements in their concentrated or extracted forms. Some folk medicines seem to be folklore as some of these substances haven’t held up to their so-called benefits. These days you’ll see some outrageous claims surrounding both natural and synthetic supplements. So, we looked at the latest studies and the science surrounding these natural performing enhancing substances. 

WHAT IS FOLK-TRADITIONAL MEDICINE?

Traditional/indigenous/folk medicine is defined by the WHO as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”

Modern scientific medicine has improved billions of lives worldwide, but there are still cultures that rely on traditional medicine. Of course, we know that some traditional medicine is absolute bullshit (almost literally), including pangolin scales, elephant tusks, and tiger penis. Still, some traditional remedies have made it into synthetic forms or extractions that you probably have taken at some point. We should approach traditional medicine with an open mind until it’s proven to be incorrect.

WHAT ARE THE SUBSTANCES IN TRADITIONAL MEDICINES THAT IMPROVE PERFORMANCE?

Traditional medicines often use various plants to heal people from a plethora of illnesses and diseases. As science continues to unravel mysteries of the past, they’re finding that many of these herbal products contain bioactive compounds such as alkaloids, terpenoids, polyphenols, and ecdysteroids. These compounds affect the human body in several ways. As with all supplementations, even herbal remedies and supplements can cause adverse effects, so it’s always important to consult your doctor before consuming any new substances. 

12 Ancient Medicines Turned Performance-Enhancing Supplements

Let’s have a look at 12 “ancient PEDs”, with some studies to prove their efficacy:

1. Caffeine

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Caffeine has been consumed for thousands of years throughout subtropical and tropical regions by a variety of cultures. Caffeine is found in several plants, including; tea, coffee, chocolate, kola nut, guarana, and yerba mate. Caffeine is one of the most studied performing-enhancing substances that consistently proves its value. Caffeine works by blocking the brain’s adenosine receptors which results in an energy boost or alertness. 

This systematic review found that caffeine produced numerous ergogenic benefits such as boosting aerobic performance, producing more power, enhancing short sprinting capacity, and increasing weight lifted. This is why it is often used as a pre-workout.

Theobromine and theophylline are alkaloids found in the plants mentioned above and also have shown some positive performance-enhancing benefits, according to this systematic review

We won’t go into any detail on coffee or tea as we assume you’re familiar with these already. 

However, we’d like to briefly cover yerba mate below: 

2. Yerba Mate  

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Yerba mate (Ilex paraguayensis) is a small evergreen shrub that contains caffeine and other performing-enhancing benefits. The indigenous tribes of the Guarani and Tupi were the first people to drink yerba mate in the area of what is now modern-day Paraguay. Once the Europeans and the Jesuits encountered the drink, they began spreading it throughout the regions the Spanish controlled. As a result, this beverage is commonly drunk in vast areas of South America, including Brazil, Argentine, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Chile.  

The drink mate has made it to the mainstream and can probably be found in your local supermarket as a canned or bottled drink. Yerba mate has been shown to improve metabolic function plus offer the same benefits as caffeine, such as energy and performance improvements. So, we think the usage and popularity of this drink will continue to grow.  

3. Rhodiola Rosea  

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This herb has been used in societies ranging from the Vikings to Mongolian nomadic tribespeople to Russian healers and even traditional Chinese medicine. Rhodiola Rosea is found in Europe, Central Asia, and the Arctic. The root of the plant is usually consumed after it has been dried. Within Rhodiola Rosea, there are multiple compounds, including rosiridin, rosin, rosine rosarines, tyrosol, tannins, polyphenols, and more importantly, salidroside and rosavin. RR also offers various vitamins, minerals, gallic acid, and chlorogenic acid, plus many antioxidants.  

Traditionally this herb was used for stimulating the nervous system, treating altitude sickness and stress. RR activates the production of norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine, which produce those benefits. 

Rhodiola Rosea has been shown to enhance physical performance by increasing resistance to muscle fatigue, improving performance, lowering stress, enhancing cognitive function, and improving the cardiovascular system.

4. Ashwagandha

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This shrub, classified as an adaptogen, has been used as a tonic in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Ashwagandha goes by many names, including winter cherry and Indian ginseng. From India, North Africa, and the Middle East, it has gained popularity worldwide and is now grown elsewhere.  

Some of the performing-enhancing benefits of Ashwagandha include increasing muscle as this study found supplementation combined with resistance training led to a significant increase in muscle strength and mass. In addition, Ashwagandha has also been shown to improve the respiratory endurance capacity of athletes. 

Related: Best Time To Take Ashwaganda

5. Pine Bark  

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Components of the pine tree, including the bark, nuts, needles, and resin, have been used for its medicinal properties by traditional societies stretching from Scandinavia to the Native Americans. 

Now we know with modern science that the pine tree indeed offers some tremendous health benefits. Pine bark extract processed from maritime pines contain potent compounds such as catechins (flavonoid that protects cells from free radical damage), phenolic acids (polyphenols high in antioxidants), and procyanidins (flavonoid that behaves like an antioxidant). According to this study, the performing-enhancing benefits of pine bark extract include enhanced exercise training results, better recovery, and oxidative stress.

6. Fenugreek 

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This annual shrub has been an ingredient in many recipes from the Indian subcontinent as India is the primary producer of fenugreek. The history of fenugreek is vast as its footprints have been found in ancient Iraq and Egypt to the Romans using it to flavor wine. The leaves and the seeds are used in cooking, but the seeds are the driver of the health benefits. Fenugreek seeds contain alkaloids, coumarins, vitamins, and saponins. 

The saponins in fenugreek seed can improve endurance capacity, increase fatty acids and strength output by increasing free testosterone. This study found that fenugreek extract had a significant impact on upper and lower body strength and composition without any side effects. It’s important to note some people may have allergic reactions to fenugreek, but overall, it’s safe for most.  

7. Cordyceps Sinensis  

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This super unique half-plant half-animal supplement has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Also known as “caterpillar fungus” in English, it comes from Nepal and Tibetan regions. It’s a fungus that grows on insects that contains cordycepin which is an adenosine derivative. It was thought to have anti-aging qualities and possessed the “yin and yang” balance as an animal and vegetable.  

In recent years Cordyceps has garnered worldwide attention as a health supplement. The ergogenic benefits from cordyceps include improving exercise performance, according to this study. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) got this one right! 

Related: Learn More About Taking Cordyceps for Fitness or Athletics

8. Astragalus Membranaceus  

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Traditional Chinese medicine has used Astragalus for many centuries to treat a variety of ailments. There are over 3,000 species of herbs and shrubs that belong to this family of Fabaceae. Some common names for Astragalus include milkvetch or locoweed, and it’s widely distributed in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Astragalus contains the active compounds of saponins and polysaccharides, which positively affect the immune system by eliminating free radicals.  

The performing-enhancing benefits of the Astragalus are that it improves exercise performance and reduces physical fatigue. This study showed that Astragalus was able to positively influence aerobic performance and helped with recovery. In addition, Astragalus is generally considered safe with few side effects. 

9. Saffron (dark red)

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This famously delectable and expensive spice is harvested from the flower of the Crocus sativus. Originally thought to have come from present-day Iran, it still produces around 90% of the world’s supply and can fetch up to $5,000 per kilogram. This traditional Persian medicine was used to cure several health issues.

Not only is saffron a delicious spice, but it also provides many health benefits and is an excellent source of carotenoids. With regards to ergogenic (enhance physical performance, stamina, or recoverythis study showed that saffron could increase strength with faster reaction times. It may also help with facilitating oxygen transport and improving blood perfusion.

10. Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia)  

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This shrub is native to South East Asia and was traditionally used to treat a wide variety of issues from fever to dysentery and was also used as an aphrodisiac. Different countries and cultures used Tongkat Ali to tend to various ailments, some using the roots while others using the flowers and fruits. Also known as longjack, as you might see on supplements these days made from the extract of the roots.  

Tongkat Ali is a rich source of phenolic compounds, alkaloids, quassinoids, and bioactive steroids. Tongkat Ali is proving to be one of the most effective folk medicines to have actual performance-enhancing benefits. This study details some of the fantastic benefits of Tongkat Ali supplementation, including; shielding the body from stress, increased testosterone production, enhanced strength, and muscle gains while speeding up fat loss. We expect this ancient performing enhancing medicine to become one of the more popular supplements in the coming years. 

11. Myrtus Communis 

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Also known as the common myrtle or true myrtle, this shrub was used in the Unani medicine system of Ancient Greece with Greek gods associated with it. The use of this flowering evergreen shrub is detailed in the Bible and surprisingly was used in the Renaissance as a symbol of love. This led to the tradition of flower bouquets at weddings. The shrub has an extensive range and is found worldwide, including Europe, North Africa, and India. 

Myrtus communis contains multiple phenolic acids, flavonoids, glycosides, terpenes, and tannins. The myrtle fruit has become a popular sports supplement that can increase anaerobic performance, reduce triglycerides and increase serum protein and iron production. This study found that the antioxidant and phenolic properties of the myrtle fruit can produce those benefits, plus it might help prevent muscle damage resulting from training.  

12. Ginseng

traditional medicine example

Ginseng has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal herb. There’s mention of its use dating back to 196 AD from a text written in China, Shen Nong. There are multiple species of ginseng from the Araliaceae family, but the most common types of ginseng equal the production of 80,000 tons worldwide include the Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng and Panax notoginseng). In contrast, Canadian ginseng and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are the other leading producers. However, the vast majority of ginseng comes from China and South Korea. 

Various species of ginseng have been studied in regards to the health benefits. Ginseng comprises many vital substances such as vitamins, minerals, fibers, saponins, and Ginsenosides. The purported physical performance-enhancing benefits include increased aerobic capacity, improved cardiorespiratory functioning, and increased muscle strength. However, this meta-analysis found little to no clinical evidence to support these claims of physical performance enhancement.  

SIBERIAN GINSENG (ELEUTHEROCOCCUS SENTICOSUS)

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Traditional Chinese medicine has been using this type of ginseng, sometimes called devil’s bush or eleuthero, to solve a range of health problems. The berries from the shrub contain polyphenols, while the roots contain multiple compounds, including sesamin, eleuteroside, lignans, coumarins, and more. 

Siberian ginseng or eleuthero is the only ginseng that has been proven to have performance-enhancing effects such as increased endurance capacity, improved cardiovascular function, and helps to reserve glycogen during exercise. 

Honorable mentions of folk medicines that are thought to have performing-enhancing qualities include: 

EPHEDRA

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Now banned in the U.S. and many other countries, Ephedra has a long-storied history dating back over 5,000 years. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ephedra or Ma huang has been used to treat various ailments for thousands of years. Traditionally, Ephedra was used to treat asthma, hay fever, bronchitis, nasal congestion, and the cold and flu. 

Ephedra sinica, Ma huang, or Chinese Ephedra, is native to Mongolia, Russia, and northeastern China. Ephedrine floated to the top of the sports world in 2000 when multiple athletes were using supplements containing Ephedra. After many studies, it’s thought that this traditional medicine is an effective stimulant for the central nervous system with thermogenic and lipolytic effects, but this ancient PED maybe is worth more trouble than it’s worth. With many safety and health concerns surrounding Ephedra, most countries have banned this substance in sports supplements.

YOHIMBE BARK (BLACK)

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This evergreen tree native to western and central Africa has been used as a traditional medicine in West Africa has been used as an aphrodisiac but has been making its way into dietary supplements in recent years. The bark of the tree contains an alkaloid called yohimbine. There’s quite a controversy surrounding yohimbine as a safe and effective supplement.  

This study showed it might help with fat loss, but there isn’t any significant evidence showing that this supplement boosts performance. We don’t suggest you take this due to lack of results and health risks associated with it, plus many supplement manufacturers aren’t clear about the dosages or quality they use in their products. 

TRIBULUS TERRESTRIS

natural PEDs for fitness

This weedy plant hails from the caltrop family and is found worldwide, mainly in warm tropical regions in Africa and Eurasia. Tribulus Terrestris goes by many names, including goat’s head, cat’s head, bindii, devil’s weed, and puncture vine, to name a few. Folk medicine in China, India, Sudan, and Pakistan has used Tribulus Terrestris for thousands of years. 

Compounds in Tribulus Terrestris such as saponins like Dioscine, Diosgenin, and Protodioscin can enhance physical fitness and libido. This plant gained some notoriety from the 1996 Summer Olympics when some athletes credited it for their success. Claims have been made that Tribulus Terrestris can increase testosterone in healthy males and improve the production of the luteinizing hormone while leading to more muscle growth.

There’s no definitive evidence that shows Tribulus Terrestris can deliver on these performance-enhancing properties in people, but in studies on rats, the results seem positive. High doses of this substance could be dangerous, so use caution and speak with your doctor about supplementing with this. 

Note: More research and standardized studies should be done before completely ruling out these ancient PEDs. 

performance enhancing plants infographic

FINAL NOTE:

More research needs to be done on these natural supplements to determine their true efficacy, dosage, and mechanisms on how they affect sports performance. Unfortunately, the supplement market is filled with false promises and unsubstantiated claims. Make sure to do your research before taking any new supplement by looking at well-respected studies, meta-analyses, or systematic reviews. There are plenty of promising natural supplements with roots in traditional medicine that can enhance your athletic performance, but there’s no substitute for hard work and consistency.

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