Enhance Athletic Performance and Decrease Stress Hormones

dr-sodhiWritten by Dr. Virender Sodhi was the first Ayurvedic and Naturopathic physician in the United States. He received his degree from the Dayanand Ayurvedic Medical College in Jalandar, India in 1980. Consequently, in 1986, the Indian government chose him to share Ayurveda with Western society as part of a cultural exchange program.

Physical activity and exercise is one of the main foundations of health and well-being. Exercise is an essential way which can stimulate our vitality, strength, and natural healing mechanisms of the body. Our culture seems to have a love-hate relationship with exercise and sports. On one hand, spending on sporting events and sporting products are at it’s highest level; on the other hand, rates of obesity and metabolic diseases has been steadily increasing for decades.

Benefits of Exercise:

Exercising regularly is the most important practice for developing exercise tolerance, as well as improving stamina and endurance. Benefits of exercise are well-documented and provide tremendous protection for health in the long-term.

Regular physical activity has the direct effect of promoting adaptability of the heart, the vascular system, and the nervous system. Physical activity also promotes a harmonious relationship between the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, and endocrine (hormonal) system. These stimulating and harmonizing effects confer disease prevention.

Research Researchers have demonstrated positive effects of exercise on cardiovascular and inflammatory disease. Regular exercise resulted in reduction of various inflammatory signaling molecules; these include TNF-alpha, IL-6, INF-y.9
The anti-inflammatory effect was specific to protecting the cardiovascular system; this was demonstrated by a reduction of inflammatory markers CRP and Homocysteine.9,10
Adhesion factors, that promote adhesion of cholesterol to blood vessels to create plaque, vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) were reduced; thus indicating protection from plaque formation in blood vessels.9

Doing up to 40-45 minutes of daily exercise is most beneficial. Also, interval exercise that alternates between high intensity and low intensity activity are more beneficial to burn calories and improve endurance.

Herbs that enhance athletic performance:

Withania somnifera

fruit-treeCommonly known as Ashwagandha or Indian Ginseng, this is a popular herb in many natural health traditions. It is well known for its capacity as an adrenal tonic –it helps us cope with stress and anxiety-related problems. Clinical studies have demonstrated that Ashwagandha can help to reduce the stress hormone (cortisol) by 30% and reduce anxiety by nearly 50% within 60 days of use.11

By cutting down the demand for cortisol hormone, Ashwagandha helps to shift the production of hormones towards more anabolic hormones like DHEA and Testosterone. Researchers have also confirmed this testosterone building effect of Ashwagandha in animal and human studies.12,13

Testosterone is an important anabolic hormone: it helps to build muscle tissue, strength, promotes regeneration of tissues, while enhancing mental vigor and vitality.

Studies In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha’s actions are described as Balya (that which gives inner strength and vitality) and Breehana (that which improves muscle bulk). Clinical studies have been done to validate this classical knowledge. A study was conducted where Ashwaganda was administered to healthy volunteers for 30 days, resulting in improved total muscle strength.14  The herb also significantly lowered total cholesterol and LDL cholesterols in these volunteers. In a study with children, 111 young volunteers were given Ashwagandha-infused Ghee (clarified butter) preparation or Ashwagandha granules.15 Over the course of 60 days, children receiving Ashwagandha infused ghee had improvement of 38.88% in muscle strength and those receiving granules had improvement of 50% – both significantly better than a placebo effect.

Studies have also shown benefits among professional athletes. In a study on teenage hockey players, Ashwagandha was given to 16 players and placebo to another 16 players.16 After taking 500mg Ashwagandha capsules twice a day for 8 weeks, players in the experimental group had better hemoglobin and improved VO2max (capacity to carry oxygen) in blood compared to players in placebo group, demonstrating that Ashwagandha improves energy supply to muscles during exercise. In another experiment, 500mg Ashwagandha capsules were given to elite cyclists, 20 years old on average.17 Eight weeks supplementation with Ashwagandha improved VO2max by 13%; time of exhaustion was also improved significantly. This study demonstrated that Ashwagandha helped to improve energy efficiency and endurance of the cyclists.

Terminalia arjuna

green-treeCommonly known by the name Arjuna. This herb is a powerful heart tonic that is commonly used in various cardiovascular conditions by traditional Ayurvedic physicians. A review of studies on the cardiac effect of the herb outlines that: Arjuna helps to prevent fibrosis and oxidative damage to the heart; it promotes activity of anti-oxidant enzymes when the heart is under stress; additionally, anti-inflammatory activity of Arjuna prevents excessive injury.18 These actions have a tonic effect on the heart tissue, thus promoting healthy function of the heart muscle.

Among patients with chest pain related deficient blood flow to the heart muscles (Angina), Arjuna has proven to be very effective. Studies In one study, 58 patients of heart failure with NYHA stage II & III heart disease were given 500mg of Arjuna, three times a day.19 The herb improved exercise tolerance and reduced clinical symptoms among these patients as effectively as the conventional drug isosorbate mononitrate (40mg/day). In patients with NYHA stage IV heart failure, Arjuna was given in addition to the conventional drug.20 Patients receiving the herb demonstrated the following improvements in cardiac efficiency:

  • Increased strength of contraction
  • Improved ejection fraction
  • Reduced heart rate

Among healthy young adults, Arjuna is often used as a preventive herb that has a relaxing effect on the cardiovascular system. Healthy young adults receiving a combination of Arjuna and Ashwangandha show great benefit from the combination. In a clinical study, 500mg of each herb was given to young healthy adults to test the effect on physical performance and cardio-respiratory endurance.21

After taking the herbs for 8 weeks the following results were seen:

  • Improved VO2max – 4.9% improvement in efficient energy consumption
  • Improved bulk muscle strength – 3.6% improvement “average absolute power” of lower limbs muscles
  • Improved velocity
  • Lowered blood pressure

These studies and more confirm the traditional knowledge of Ayurvedic physicians and affirm the effectiveness of these herbs as alternatives to otherwise dangerous performance enhancing drugs.


‘Performance enhancing’ drug use is very common in the young as well as professional athletes. I remember when my son Gunny Sodhi was in high school, he was keen to use performance enhancing steroids for bulking and building muscles. I remember we had a very interesting talk and it took lot of persuasion to avoid the use of anabolic steroids. Sometimes we are tempted to fall into a trap for short term gain, but the long terms side-effects can be permanent; one of them being infertility along with many others. Herbal medicine can provide a safe and natural alternative.


[9] Palmefors H, et al. The effect of physical activity or exercise on key biomarkers in atherosclerosis e: A systematic review. Atherosclerosis, 2014; Vol. 235, Pg. 150-161.
[10] De Silva Ade S, da Mota MP. Effects of physical activity and training programs on plasma homocysteine levels: a systematic review. Amino Acids, 2014 Aug; Vol. 46(8), Pg. 1795-804.
[11] Chandrasekhar K, et al. “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012; 34(3):255-262.
[12] Ambiye VR, et al. Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.
[13] Belal NM, et al. Effect of Dietary Intake Ashwagandha Roots Powder on the Levels of Sex Hormones in the Diabetic and Non-Diabetic Male Rats. World Journal of Dairy & Food Sciences, Vol. 7(2): 160-166, 2012
[14] Raut AA, et al. Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2012 JulSep; Vol. 3(3): 111–114.
[15] Mishra RK, et al. A clinical study of Ashwagandha ghrita and Ashwagandha granules for its Brumhana and Balya effect. Ayu. 2010 JulSep; 31(3): 355–360.
[16] Malik A, et al. Effect of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root powder supplementation on the VO2max and hemoglobin in hockey players. International Journal of Behavioural Social and Movement Sciences 2013 Vol. 2 No. 3 pp. 91-99
[17] Shenoy S, et al. Effects of eightweek supplementation of Ashwagandha on cardiorespiratory endurance in elite Indian cyclists. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2012 OctDec; 3(4): 209–214
[18] Paarakh PM. Terminalia arjuna (Roxb.) Wt. and Arn.: a review. International Journal of Pharmacology, 2010; Vol. 6(5), 515-534.
[19] A. Bharani, et al. “Efficacy of Terminalia arjuna in chronic stable angina: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study comparing Terminalia arjuna with isosorbide mononitrate,” Indian Heart Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 170–175, 2002.
[20] Maulik SK and Talwar KK. Therapeutic Potential of Terminalia Arjuna in Cardiovascular Disorders. Am J Cardiovasc Drugs 2012; 12 (3): 157-163.
[21] Sandhu JS, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. Int J Ayurveda Res. 2010 JulSep; 1(3): 144–149