Are herbal supplements safe, effective and worth the cost?
It is always enticing to take a product that promises to improve your tennis game with no extra sweat equity. Today, many of the products that line store aisles promise to do just that. The basis for their claims is the herbal supplements they contain. But are they effective, worth the extra cost, and safe?
Marketed as performance enhancers
Herbals have been used throughout history because of their suspected healing properties. These plant-based substances continue to be popular today not only for their medicinal properties, but also for their supposed ergogenic (performance enhancing) effects. Herbal supplements are marketed to athletes because of their suspected ability to enhance physical performance—they’ve been said to elicit increased energy and mental alertness, muscle growth, and weight loss.
Herbals are widely available. They can be found as pills or powders (either individually or as a mixture of herbs), as ingredients in sports drinks or energy bars, and even as optional "mix-ins" at smoothie bars. A list of popular herbal supplements, along with their performance claims is below:
||Increased aerobic endurance
|St. John's Wort
All sorts of claims allowed
Despite the history of herbal supplements being used for medicinal properties, the United States chose to regulate most herbal supplements more like a food ingredient than a drug, under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). While it might not seem like an important distinction, it has significant implications for both the quality and safety of herbal supplements. Why? Because, unlike a drug, where safety and effectiveness must be proven by the producer before it is sold, the burden of proof to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of an herbal product lies with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
That means essentially anyone can create and sell an herbal supplement without oversight or prior approval from the FDA, and the FDA can’t pull it off the shelves until it demonstrates a potential health risk. The same is true for claims about herbal supplement effectiveness; the FDA requires no supporting documentation to make an effectiveness claim about a product. So nearly any claim is allowed, as long as that claim doesn’t involve treating, curing, or mitigating a specific disease.
Purity is not guaranteed
What is listed on the label of an herbal product is not necessarily what you really get. Up to 20 percent of over-the-counter supplements that claim ergogenic properties contain products that are banned by the Tennis Anti-Doping Program. Further, many herbal products are mixed in large vats that may contain impurities from other products made by the same company.
The bottom line: Save your money
There is very little scientific evidence of herbal supplements benefitting athletic performance. The few well-designed and controlled studies available don’t suggest that herbal supplements have much of an effect. Until more work is done to demonstrate safe and effective dosages of herbal products, save your money and focus instead on other methods to improve your game.