This week I'm going to discuss a relatively new herbal supplement that's recently grown in popularity. It's called Cordyceps sinensis and while its use is relatively new in the United States, it has been used for centuries as a health tonic in China.
This herb was relatively unheard of in most circles until the mid 90's, when various running records were attributed partly to this supplement.
For other nerds out there like me, who like to know the how and why of everything, Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus parasite that lives on caterpillars in high mountain regions of Tibet and southwestern China.
In case you're wondering, though, supplement companies don't have their cronies out there scraping the backs of caterpillars in hopes of collecting some of this parasite; some intelligent individuals discovered how to artificially create the cordyceps cells in the lab.
The herbs associated claims range from having a beneficial effect on the immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems to increasing endurance performance and reducing fatigue with regards to performance.
However, in terms of performance, this has been the only published, full length, peer reviewed study to date (FYI: peer-reviewed means scientists outside of those conducting the study reviewed the work to ensure it was a well-conducted study and subsequent published work).
Let's take a look at this study to see if this herb could help enhance your performance. Twenty-two trained male cyclists completed the entire 5-week study. The subjects were divided into two groups: Cordyceps sinensis (CS) and placebo.
Take a look at last week's Supplement Savvy article if you're unsure of what role the placebo group plays in a research study. The groups received either CS (3 grams/day), which is the recommended dose or placebo pills.
Keep in mind that the subjects do not know which group they are in until the completion of the study; this ensures that subjects don't consciously train or perform harder because they think the supplement should be doing something for their performance.
During the 5-week period, subjects performed a testing protocol to determine maximal oxygen consumption. Each subject also performed endurance time trials (1 initially to familiarize subjects with the protocol, 1 pre-test, and 1 post-test trial).
At the end of the study, there were no significant differences between groups (CS or placebo) in terms of the time trials. Moreover, maximal oxygen consumption did not change between the groups at the end of the trial either.
Therefore, because this is the only full-length paper published at this time, we can conclude that Cordyceps sinensis does not enhance maximal oxygen consumption or enhance endurance time in the group of subjects analyzed or those with similar characteristics.
As usual, more research is warranted with various groups of individuals, different doses of the supplement, and with different exercise modalities.
International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2003, 13, 97-111.
Parcell et al.
Next, let's talk about creatine. I've discussed creatine more than once in this column, but this is the first study I've talked about regarding creatine in combination with alpha-lipoic-acid (ALA). ALA has been shown to enhance glucose uptake into skeletal muscle.
Similarly, in a previous Supplement Savvy column, I talked about how carbohydrate, when taken with creatine, enhances the uptake of creatine into the muscle. Therefore, many have speculated that ALA may further enhance this uptake because of the synergistic relationship among the aforementioned nutrients.
The purpose of this study was to determine just that; could the combination of ALA, carbohydrate and creatine be more efficient at increasing intramuscular creatine levels than creatine alone or creatine with carbohydrate?
Subjects were randomly assigned to either creatine alone (typical loading phase of 5 grams/4 times per day-20 grams total), creatine (same 20 grams as the other group) plus 25 grams of sucrose taken at the same times as creatine (so 100 grams total sucrose + 20 grams creatine), or the same as the second group with the addition of 250 mg ALA 4 times/day (100 grams sucrose + 20 grams creatine + 1000 mg ALA, total for the day).
Twenty males completed this study. In general, creatine supplementation caused a significant increase in body mass. However, the subjects in the creatine, sucrose and ALA group increased the muscle phosphocreatine levels significantly more than either of the other two groups.
No performance measures were used in this study, so it would be interesting to see if this increase in muscle phosphocreatine levels carried over to performance increases. However, we can conclude from this study that ALA is useful in enhancing cellular uptake of creatine.
International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2003, 13, 294-302.
Burke et al.