Monday, March 31, 2008

Medicinal Herbs for Athletes -- TONICS

3 Herbal Categories Useful for Athletes:

· Tonics – increase energy, increase endurance, and stimulate the immune system.
· Nervines – resolve pain, nourish nerve tissues, relieve muscle spasms, and calm and relax the mind.
· Topical Preparations – formulas used to relieve strains, sprains, soreness, and

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), exercise is essential to maintain health. Physical activity promotes the flow of Qi –which is our life force or energy, and promotes the flow of blood throughout our circulatory system.

However, excessive exercise is considered to be taxing to the body and may lead to “deficiencies” within the body. Rest is considered to be the primary method for preventing deficiencies and to ensure the body has time to rebuild and maintain Qi and Blood.

The concept of Yin and Yang is the foundation of TCM. Yin is considered feminine, fluid, cool, and nourishing; and Yang is considered masculine, drying, warm, and stimulating. Running, is considered to be a Yang activity, and should be balanced with Yin activities such as Yoga, stretching, swimming, easy cycling, or Tai Chi. Cross-training with Yin activities will help to promote balance within the structural body.

The use of herbs as medicine and food has been occurring as long as humans have walked (or run!) the Earth. Ideally, our food should be our primary medicine, and we can supplement our food with specific herbs to enhance the tonifying and nutritional value of food. A diet consisting mostly of whole grains, legumes, steamed or sautéed vegetables, and moderate amounts of protein will help to maintain our health, and support our body—especially during periods of high intensity training. Supplementing our diets with specific herbs can be useful in maintaining our immune system, supporting and tonifying specific organ groups, and enhancing endurance.

Additionally, the use of external herbal preparations can help to alleviate sore muscles, strains, and sprains.

Herbs are biochemically available to our bodies, and our bodies have had millennia to create receptors for the constituents present in herbs. Synthetic pharmaceuticals have been around for about 100 years, and are useful for certain conditions. Herbs generally work by helping to support the body as necessary, enhancing the body’s ability to heal itself without masking symptoms or driving illness deeper within the body.

Most people are familiar with the tonic herb Ginseng (Panax ginseng), which is widely used around the world to increase energy, strength, and endurance, as well as to stimulate the immune system. There are actually six kinds of “Ginseng” used in TCM, and only two are actual Ginsengs. The other herbs share similar qualities as ginseng. Ginsengs are considered to be the Kings of all tonics, but each type has specific actions on the body, and not all are appropriate for everyone.

As athletes, we are exerting stress upon our bodies during periods of heavy training. In using tonics, we can help to counteract that stress, and maintain a strong, healthy body.

Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
One tonic that is very useful for most athletes is the Siberian Ginseng. This herb is considered to be a Qi tonic, and counteracts stress and fatigue. Additionally, it is prescribed for rheumatic conditions, and is considered to be antispasmodic—helping to reduce muscle spasms. Siberian Ginseng can be taken daily by athletes to increase stamina.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps spp.)
In China, Cordyceps is considered to be virtually essential for athletes who rely on strength, speed of foot, and endurance. Recent Research has shown that Cordyceps is restorative after excessive exertion, and it may improve physical endurance. Cordyceps helps restore cellular energy levels during times of high stress. It helps boost functions associated with the adrenal cortex that aid in the adaptation to stress. Cordyceps increases respiratory capacity and efficiency. Cordyceps is also an immune-stimulant. Cordyceps has been shown to benefit the vascular system, improving the function of circulation at the capillary level. According to TCM principles, Cordyceps is used to tonify Qi, replenish Yin and Yang “Essence”, (which is thought to be the very foundation of our life-giving energy), strengthen the body and mind, and is said to be “anti-aging” and have rejuvenative capability.

Cordyceps is one of the absolute coolest fungi on the planet. The spores invade the pupae of various species of caterpillars, use the infant caterpillar as food, overtake the pupae and eventually sprout a fruiting body.

Lycii Berries (Lycium barbarum and L. chinensis)

This delicious fruit of the Wolfberry bush is very widely used throughout Asia and is thought of as a superb Yin and Blood tonic. The fruit is easily added to cereals, yogurt, and trail mix. You can find it at health food stores in a product called Himalmania. It is sometimes called Goji berry. We have several related species here in the SW, and this popular xeriscape plant is easily found at most local nurseries. Recent research has shown that Lycii fruit has significant antioxidant activity. Lycii berries may help athletes produce more lean muscle mass and experience strength gains. The berries contains substances that protect DNA, they contains polysaccharides that have been demonstrated to stimulate the immune system. Zeaxanthin, a carotenoid abundant in Lycii berries, may produce functional improvement in vision. It has been reported that it could markedly increase androgen levels in the blood, making patients feel more energetic.

In TCM Lycii is used as a Liver and Blood Tonic, it nourishes the vital essence of the body, calms the heart and the nervous system. It is said to brighten the eyes, promote cheerfulness and vitality. It is also said to strengthen the legs.

Reishi Mushroom / Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum)

In China, Reishi is called the Herb of Immortality, and is thought of as the premier herb for longevity and health. Reishi is abundant in chemical constituents known as polysaccharides, which play an important role in strengthening the body's overall immune functions. Extensive research has been performed on the constituents present in Reishi. Research has proven Reishi to be anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-parasitic, anti-fungal, anti-diabetic, anti-hypotensive, and hepatoprotective. It has also been found to inhibit platelet aggregations, and to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Ganoderic acids in Reishi inhibit histamine release, improve oxygen utilization and improve liver functions. Ganoderic acids are potent antioxidant free-radical scavengers. Reishi may improve the physical condition of the cardiovascular system. Reishi stimulates the production of interferon and interleukins I and II, which are potent natural immunity-boosting substances produced in our own bodies. According to TCM Reishi is a Qi, Essence, and Shen (Mind) Tonic. It is said to protect the entire body, it nurtures the heart, protects the liver, and promotes calmness, centeredness, balance, inner awareness, and inner strength.
Nervines are next...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A few easy remedies

Since, it seems, that many people are currently reeling from the after effects of some noxious nasty or another, I thought I'd provide a few quick and easy remedies for some of these lingering symptoms of colds, flus, etc.

The majority of these can be purchased in health food stores, specialty herb stores, or most chain natural food markets.

Additionally, all these products are Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certified, and if you choose the brand name along with product name, you can be assured that there are no heavy metals, unknown pharmaceuticals, fillers, sugars, artificial colors, or other unknown contaminants. Given that these are Chinese forumulas, and some are manufactured in China, GMP certified products are especially important to herbalists and the herb industry.

Sinus Congestion and Sinus Infections

Bi Yan Pian

Clinical Uses:

allergic rhinitis, acute and chronic rhinitis, perennial rhinitis, acute and chronic sinusitis, post-nasal drip, upper respiratory tract infection, common cold, and influenza.


Xanthium sibiricum fruit, Magnolia denudata flower, Forsythia suspensa fruit, Saposhnikovia divaricata root, Angelica dahurica root, Anemarrhena asphodeloides rhizome, Glycyrrhiza uralensis root, Schizonepeta tenuifolia herb, Chrysanthemum indicum flower, Schisandra chinensis fruit, Platycodon grandiflorum root.

This formula is espcially useful for chronic congested sinuses--the ongoing stuffed-up nose that simply doesn't goes away, even though it's been 3 weeks since you got the darn cold to begin with. Also, it is very effective for sinus infections, usually clearing them up within a day or so.

Horseradish Root

Another good choice at the early stages of a sinus infection, grate 1 Tblsp. of fresh horseradish root and add enough apple cider vinegar to cover the root. Drink the cider vinegar and discard the horseradish. Like wasabi, it immediately enters the sinuses and provides some immediate relief. Another option, is, of course, to simply go have sushi and eat as much of the wasabi as you can stand!

Low Energy

Does it seem like you're still draggin' your tail, even though that cold or flu is several weeks behind you? It's likely that you could use a little help boosting your immunity and energy after a bout with some of the nasty stuff that's been circulating this winter.

Siberian Ginseng
Not a real ginseng, Siberian Ginseng, or Eleutherococcus senticosus, is especially useful after enduring a particularly hard sickness. It is anti-inflammatory, counteracts stress and fatigue, and is often prescribed for low vitality and a lack of endurance. Siberian Ginseng helps to increase blood circulation and is said to be a Qi (Energy) Tonic.

If using the tincture 40 to 60 drops 3 to 4 times a day for several days should help. This is also a respected plant for athletes, which I am still planning to elaborate on, as it increases endurance and stamina.

Increase Immunity
After a bout with a hard-to-shake illness, it's good to do a short blast of immuno-enhancing to get yourself back on track. My recommendation is a 4-week blast using two simple herbs, Echinacea and Astragalus.

Echinacea has past been in the news in articles where the intent is obviously to debunk or discredit the herb and its benefits. The articles (A quick Google search in the news archives will take you to many of these) often refer to the ineffectiveness of Echinacea at preventing colds, or reducing symptoms of colds. There is much debate about the kinds of scientific studies that have been performed with Echinacea; some are well done, some are not. That's just the way scientific studies are. However, herbalists have long known that while Echinacea does not prevent colds, nor reduce it's symptoms, it is quite effective at boosting immunity.

Generally, it can be safely taken when sick to help reduce the duration of colds and other sicknesses. And after sickness, it is generally regarded as a simple remedy to boost immunity. It is often recommended for two weeks time. Echinacea pupurea is thought to be the most powerful of the Echinacea species. Herbs Etc. make a wonderful tincture called Echinace Triple Source that has all three Echinacea species in it, and it makes your mouth all tingly so you know it's strong! Some herbalists feel that the benefit of using Echinacea to enhance immunity are reduced after two weeks.

Echinacea should not be taken by those allergic to ragweed, those with autoimmune disorders or if taking drugs that can hurt the liver.

The second immuno-blast herb is Astragalus. According to MedHerb, Astragalus membranaceus one of the top fifty herbs used by clinical herbalists in the U.S., where it placed sixteenth. Clinically, it is known for building resistance to colds and infections. It also figures prominently in the herbal treatment of cancer, AIDS, and autoimmune diseases. It builds overall immunity, strengthens the lungs, and improves the digestion. It increases endurance and body weight in animals. American varieties of astragalus are known as “locoweed” because of their overstimulating effects on cattle that eat too much of them. In Chinese medical terms, astragalus is said to build up the protective Qi, also called the Wei Qi. Astragalus is the primary herb in Chinese herbalism used to strengthen Wei Qi.

My instructor Leslie Tierra used this analogy for using Astragalus: use this herb as your "home defense system" as it can help build your body's immunity such that the outer walls are like a fortress, but at the first sign of a cold or other sickness, stop taking Astragalus, as that is like locking the robber in the house...and the last thing we want to do is lock a sickness in!

Astragalus can be used long term and its effects are said to increase the longer it is taken. Post sickeness, I suggest starting astragalus after all known symptoms of the illness are gone, and after the Echinacea has been taken for two weeks. A two-week "blast" of Astragalus should help the body back to it's strong and healthy state.

Cheers to Good Health!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bumps in the Road

To say the least, despite this being the Year of the Rat, supposedly the year of new beginnings, my family and I have finally had enough of the new beginnings of illnesses upon illnesses, upon illnesses.

While this is supposed to be a blog about health and healing and the use of herbs to maintain and get you there, it all goes out the door (sometimes) when kids are involved.

Given the last 5 weeks of snot and such and watching it all deteriorate into pneumonia with one kid and a serious non-pneumonia respiratory infection with the other, I am amazed at the amazing power of viruses and the amazing differences in the ability of one body versus another in dealing with them. One kid is fine one day, sick the next, fine for a week, sick for a day, fine the next, sick again, fine the next, and then BAM!! Pneumonia. The other kid has been sniffling, snuffling, dripping, coughing, moaning, cranky, clingy, irritable, irritating, and generally unwell for 4 weeks, and then BAM!! Super serious do-we-need-to-rush-to-ER-in-the-middle-of-the-night sick. And then she maintains that level of sickness for 5 straight days.


Fortunately, I think she's turned the corner and is on the up and up.

To add insult to injury, I of course got sick again, for the 2nd time in 3 weeks right at the apex of the do we hospitalize or not time-frame.

Mother's can't afford to get sick when everyone is healthy and happy, but when the poop is hitting the fan the last thing anyone needs is a sick Mama.

Fortunately, Mama does know herbs, and I managed to pick the right forumula to knock the crap out of this virus. And while it hasn't left my body, it didn't entrench itself there like it did with the kids, and I definitely feel like I'm on the mend.

It all reminds me of being in 9th grade when I got strep 3 times, the chickenpox, bronchitis, and several normal colds, all between the months of November and April. Now that was a picnic! The chickenpox were miraculously obtained from a book of childhood illnesses I read while babysitting one night, and 4 days later I was covered in a lovely shade of polka-dot. I managed to give it to the 5 or so people in high school who also had somehow never been exposed. What a joy.

In all upbeatedness...I hope that's all for now. Let's get on to some real new beginnings--like vacations to fun places we've never been!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

'Tis the Season for Training

This little community is known far and wide as an excellent location for high altitude training. In addition to the many athletes that come here to train for specific world class events, there happens to be a large number of world class athletes who reside here. I am far from a world class athlete, although I'm honored to be friends with quite a few.

Growing up, I was one of those kids that had to face the difficult position of being born with natural athletic skills, yet my parents had little interest in me joining any sort of athletic team outside of standard school-day events. I can (sort of) understand where they were coming from. They both worked a fair distance away, and each of them commuted about an hour each day to work. Due to our rural locale, grocery shopping, and other such mundane errands required a commute as well. By the time the weekend rolled around, I imagine they didn't want to get tied down with running me all over the northern half of the state to soccer games, or gymnastics meets, or volleyball tournaments, or swim meets. It was easier to say, "why don't you go play outside," and be done with it.

Granted, as a result of our rural locale, I spent the majority of my childhood outdoors, and I loved every bit of it. Between the ponds, the ditch, the river, the horses, the Barrancas, the arroyos, the bikes, the acres and acres to explore, I definitely kept myself busy. But the reality was, I wanted to play soccer, I wanted to take gymnastics, I wanted to be on the track team, and I wanted my own horse. As I got older, and it became evident that band was the only extra-curricular activity I would be encouraged to participate in, I gave up my athletic interests for chain-smoking Camels on the Plaza with my friends. Naturally, we ended up walking quite a bit as we searched for friends and parties within the city limits, but it was certainly a far cry from joining my peers at the track meet for the weekend.

My senior year in high school, however, I hooked up with my future husband and he happened to be an avid outdoorsman. Being a guy, he was able to spend his teenage years camping with his best bros, spending all weekend long hiking up and down mountains, through canyons, and everywhere in between. When he wasn't in the mountains, he was skateboarding, and when he wasn't skateboarding, he was practicing martial arts, and if he wasn't doing any of those things he was playing his drums. It became evident pretty quickly that if I was to keep this fine catch, I was going to have to give up the nasty cigarrette habit (fortunately that was simple), buy myself a pair of hiking boots, and whip my butt into shape. The first hike he and I took together, I seem to recall dying about 200 yards from the trailhead. My lungs were bursting and stopped working, my legs were burning from a fire that began from within my very bones, and I was sweating something awful. I felt like a total wimp. I probably cried, too, but he was kind to me and has memory issues, so he probably doesn't remember that.

As the days wore into weeks, and the weeks into months, it soon became obvious that something was happening to me; I was getting better and better at hiking. Soon, I started running after school--just for fun, I became a pretty darn good sipa sack player, I needed a new pair of hiking boots because mine wore out, and I took up karate.

When I went off to college, I kept running, I started swimming, and I bought my very first mountain bike--a "purple haze" colored GT Karakoram. It was a dream. Soon I was navigating the sopping wet, moss and root-laden trails that went down to the beach on our campus, and maneuvering the steep climb back out. Over the next several years I became a full-time bike commuter equipped with plastic bags over my feet, my books in garbage bags inside the panniers, and outfitted in full gore-tex due to the sodden conditions I lived in. It was awesome. And honestly, I was quite righteous about it.

As my love affair with mountain biking progressed through the years, I dappled with a few mountain bike races--but puking in the woods on a Sunday pretty much cured me of that. So, I just satisfied myself with long, beautiful mountain bike rides, bought myself a road bike, and continued with all my other interests such as climbing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, swimming, running, karate, and taking my dogs for hikes.

Then one day I decided to try a sprint triathlon. Much more fun than any mountain bike race, I thought I might like to train more seriously. I didn't, however, have a clue what that meant. I consulted with my personal trainer / world cup mountain bike racer friend. She helped me develop a training program, performed all the baseline tests to help me guage my progress, and provided me with a workout calendar to track all the training. I was stoked! Then I got pregnant, and my training program pretty much went out with the wash.

Despite the short interlude during which time I still swam and did karate regularly, I came back with gusto. Birthing a baby at home sans doctors or drugs surely helped to fire me up. I was ready to start training again!

My next triathlon, however, was nothing to write home about. I was slightly under the weather, and it became obvious pretty quick that my idea of what I'd done to train was really not worthy of even being called training. The next triathlon was a bit better, I trained much harder, got a gold medal in my category, and wasn't even sore the next day. Pretty cool!

And here I am today. In the midst of week 5 of my new training program. A real training program, with a real coach, a real team, and with a race goal at the end. And this time it's a 1/2 marathon trail run. The Jemez Mountain Trail Run, which is notorious for its climbs. I'm not really a runner. Not in the ultra-runner sense of the word. I'm just hoping to improve my running even more.

In retrospect, I can see that I might be trying to make up for the lost athletic time I could've spent during my childhood. But, then again, maybe I'd be just another jock burnout if I'd done athletics all through school. So, with all the focus on training, and supporting the body during periods of high intensity exercise, I'll have several posts this week on herbs and supplements that have been proven to be helpful for athletes.

But for now, I'm going to go prepare a nutritious feast, as all that exercise is making me hungry!


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spring Forward -- Even if it's not yet Spring!

It’s that time of year again! We spring forward from Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Standard Time has actually become a misnomer. Daylight Savings Time now spans nearly 3/4's of the year, which makes Standard Time less standard than it has been for nearly 30 years.

Interestingly, even the concept of a standardized time is relatively new to modern world, being used in the United States for under a century. Before the concept of Standard Time, the entire world operated on Solar Time, or “Sun Time.” For millennia, time had been measured based upon the position of the sun with noon being the moment when the sun was highest in the sky. Prior to the invention of mechanical clocks sometime during the Middle Ages, people used sundials to measure time. Villages and cities would set their clock by measuring the position of the sun, and every city was on a slightly different time. Thus, time measured by the sun on a sundial is called Apparent Solar Time, or true local time. When time was measured based upon a longitudinal meridian, it was called Mean Solar Time.

During the 1800s, Great Britain instituted the first Standard Time because those who operated the railroads were most concerned about the inconsistencies of time from one town to the next. During the late 1800s, the railroads in the United States began to feel constraints due to these inconsistencies between town to town, and the initial steps towards time standardization began. It wasn’t until 1918 however, that Congress enacted the Standard Time Act of 1918, and time thus became standardized for the entire country. Well, sort of. Included in the Standard Time Act was the concept of preserving daylight for 7 months of the year and beginning on March 31.

The option to use Daylight Savings Time became a matter of choice for individual cities. Most chose not to implement it. Most cities and counties around the country used their own guidelines for following Daylight Savings Time, and there was no consistency from coast to coast. It wasn’t until the Uniform Time Act of 1966 that the Government once again stepped in and established the rules for Daylight Savings Time: it would begin on the last Sunday of April, and end on the last Sunday of October. If a state chose to not use Daylight Savings Time they could pass a State Law regarding the issue.

Jump forward to 2007, when a quick glance at the calendar left me befuddled and confused. “What?! Daylight Savings time begins now? Holy smokes! What has caused this atrocity? It’s not even officially Spring yet!” While, I’ll be the first to admit that more daylight in the evening is a great thing for those of us who crave nothing more than getting out on the bike or on a hike, or out for a run, or a walk with the dogs, or a quick session climbing, etc. But, for those of us who wake with the sun, and rely upon daylight to regulate our internal clocks, this whole change from the end of April to the second Sunday in March is no good at all!

Just as I’m finally able to get up and moving before the hour of 7 am, suddenly I’m forced to rouse earlier than my body is ready to, and thus a straggling and harried morning confusion ensues. At least for a couple weeks.

As that chaos ensued last March, I had to know who I could thank for this disruption to my internal clock, and a quick Google search gave me the answers I needed. I could wholeheartedly thank the manipulative Dick Cheney. Yeah, “Thanks, Dick” pun intended. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, I am now a walking zombie a whole 6 weeks earlier. I won’t even bother going into the controversy surrounding the development of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It will just make my head hurt.

However, the fact that Daylight Savings Time is considered to have some sort of energy savings associated with it does seem somewhat puzzling. It seems to me that if it is dark and cold when I wake in the morning, it is unlikely that I'll be helping to conserve energy by igniting my lights, or raising the thermostat. A couple of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara are curious too, and their interesting draft paper can be read here. Their conclusions are that there is no energy savings at all, and in fact, Daylight Savings Time increases energy demands. How's that for smart policy, Dick?

So, here we are, poised to Spring Forward this coming Sunday. My bicycle will be happy, and my children likely will too, when they to romp at the park or in the woods a little while longer. In fact, when my dear little sweeties are sleeping soundly in the wee hours of the morning, while I’m scrabbling bleary-eyed towards the espresso machine, I’ll probably be happy too. At least for a few moments.

And that leaves us to discussing an herb that may help us make the transition into spring a little earlier a little easier.


Latin Name Urtica dioica
Other Names Stinging nettle
Part Used Leaf, rhizome
Herb Forms Tincture, capsule, bulk herb.
Affects Blood, Digestive system, Urinary system
Cautions The fresh leaves can cause skin rash.

Nettles are known to be rich in chlorophyll and minerals and are used for anemia and weak blood. Nettles have been shown to have antiallergenic properties and may be useful for hay fever. The cool tea is taken for urinary problems, such as cystitis and gravel. Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are used internally or externally for arthritis and rheumatism. Nettles are slightly diuretic, cleansing, and hemostatic. The rhizomes are often recommended by herbalists in Europe to alleviate inflammation and swelling of the prostate gland and are blended with saw palmetto berries. The nettle greens are among the most nutritious foods known, containing a large portion of vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll, and a complete protein. The powdered or fresh greens can be used as a tea or food to help build the blood in cases of blood deficiency with fatigue, or as a preventative. Nettles are considered very useful during pregnancy, and can safely be used during the entire 9 months. After steaming, the stinging properties are completely destroyed.

Nettles has a taste of SALTY, BITTER and a temperature of COOL.

Nettles are often one of the first spring greens, arriving along the moist banks of annual and perennial streams, and near springs, seeps, and marshes. As such, many herbalists have considered Nettles to be useful for cleansing the blood of stagnation that may have accumulated during the dark days of winter, and from a diet heavy in starches and proteins. Nettles are also useful for the hayfever, which in our neck of the woods, arrived in early spring. Nettles are more tasty than Spinach, in my opinion, and are used by many cultures as a steamed green, which is made more delicious with some fresh garlic, toasted sesame oil, a little rice vinegar, and tamari.

Nettles are more notoriously known for their stinging and blistering properties, which if you’ve ever found yourself enmeshed in a patch of nettles in the middle of the night while hiking back from a hot spring, you’ll know what I’m referring to! However, even the stinging properties of nettles are revered by the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, who, prior to launching on all-night whale hunts, would lash their bodies all over with fresh nettles, to help them stay alert and awake during the hunt.