Q: I have doubts about some herbal products being described as more natural to the body. Don't these things contain chemicals just like pills?

Absolutely. A drug by any other name is still a drug.Most of the pharmaceutical chemicals used today were originally discovered in plant or animal sources. While the idea of using herbs and other "natural" products appeals to one's sense of harmony with nature, remember you are still putting a chemical in your body. Also because of considerable variation in production standards, you don't really know what and how much of these chemicals are going into your body. Some manufacturers of weight loss herbal preparations have been caught adding things like methamphetamine and thyroid hormone to the herbs. Sure it works. It is also quite dangerous and not in the least "natural".

Cocaine, opium, and strychnine are all very natural herbal products, but most people are aware the dangers of these chemicals.

Do herbal preparations work?

Ok. First, let's back up a bit -- you should identify what effect you are looking for. Whether the desired effect is less fatigue, injury recovery, or better sleep, identify what you want. The next step is to thoroughly research the subject. This means more than asking a friend, talking with a salesman, or reading that a pro triathlete uses it. There are several good consumer books written on the subject. You can also research medical databases. Beware though, not everything written is true, and some published studies are jibberish. If one study demonstrates a postive effect, but 5 others show no benefit, don't junk the 5 negatives. Be wary of advertisements, since they tend to paint only the rosiest picture and may leave out some important facts.

A final consideration is, "Could it harm me"? The answer to this question is very important, and depends upon your own bodys' biochemistry, genetics, health, and presence of disease. As an example, in the late 1980's, over thirty people died as a result of takingthe natural amino acid L-tryptophan. This natural sleep aid was widely hyped prior to the discovery of its' side-effects.

The range of possibilities

The following table should help you understand the full range of possibilities any time you put a chemical into your body.

  1. The drug(herb) works as desired -- as determined by a well designed, PLACEBO controlled study.
    1. mechanism of action
      • understood
      • unknown
      • poorly understood
    2. side effects
      • risk exceeds benefits
      • acceptable risk to benefit ratio
  2. The drug(herb) does not work
    1. biochemical mechanism of action
      • understood
      • unknown
      • poorly understood
    2. side effects
      • harmful
      • not harmful

As you can see from this outline, only one possibility is truly acceptable,

"the drug works and the side effect profile is minimal"

. Anything else, is potentially harmful to the individual.


>How efficiently can the body use ATP that is taken orally? Are there any >possible harmful side effects (could you take too many and actually >collapse from exhaustion since you could artificially override your bodies >warning signals) ? Do other people think it's ethical (or am I just being >a purist) ? >

The human body cannot use ATP taken orally as an energy source for exercising muscles. Stomach acid is just too much for the ATP. This is not to say that it is completely worthless since it is a source of phosphate. However, you could better obtain phosphates from food. It's healthier and a whole lot cheaper.

It is possible to take too much of this garbage and make yourself ill. Mostly this would be from high solute concentrations in the stomach leading to nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Additionally high solute concentrations in the stomach can delay gastric emptying and interfere with hydration. I imagine that in time there will be some reports in the press and medical literature documenting poisonings from these substances

The problem with most people who are convinced that these things work is that they are conducting an experiment with n=1. Where is the control ? Is it the hard work you've put into training or the little magic pill? There are too many variables and no control for comparison.

I don't think you're being a purist. I think you are right to suspect the "get rich quick schemes". There really aren't any short cuts -- smart training, good nutrition, and rest are the keys. At a recent club meeting, someone asked a triathlete-- who is also a registered dietitian-- what ergogenic supplement she used. Her answer was, "FOOD".

Sarcastic example of an uncontrolled trial

Personally, I eat a lot of salmon to make me a better swimmer.

It really works.

Have you ever seen those things swim up a waterfall? *WOW*. My times keep dropping in the open water swims so I *must* be right. :-) (Note: this doesn't appear to help very much in pool swims which confirms my theory).