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Boosting Stamina with Herbs and Nutrition

By David Bock

Many athletes focus on increasing stamina. Aside from training and physical abilities, stamina is a function of how well your body can get energy and oxygen to the muscles over an extended period of time. With the proper use of herbs and a well-chosen diet, you can increase your stamina naturally.

Muscles store a finite amount of energy to be used in activity. That energy is replenished by the flow of blood. For an athlete, the goal is to maximize the body’s ability to replenish energy — in the form of sugars and oxygen — quicker than it is being depleted.

Sugars that drive the muscles are easily carried by blood. Oxygen (and carbon dioxide) transport is handled by the red blood cells (erythrocytes). The important part of the oxygen transport is the hemoglobin or Heme. This complex protein contains iron, latches onto oxygen, and then trades it for carbon dioxide at the cell level. The efficiency of this respiratory process is vital to the functioning of the body.

Athletes in training have found many ways to maximize the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Some athletes train in the mountains (or artificially replicate altitude) to force the body to build more oxygen-carrying capacity due to the low oxygen levels in high altitudes. Some athletes try “blood doping” where they store their blood, allow the body to replenish the blood, and then add the blood cells back into the body to artificially boost the amount of red blood cells. For most athletes the question is, what can I do that will naturally benefit the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood?

From a herbal medicine perspective, we can look at the condition of anemia, which is a clinical deficiency of blood function. Anemia overlaps a Chinese medical concept of blood deficiency. This is treated with blood-nourishing herbs, which include Dang gui, bai shao, shu di huang, e jiao, and others. These herbs are dense in texture, and often rich in proteins and dark in color. These herbs were understood to nourish the body in very specific ways to relieve the symptoms of blood deficiency. What we now know from modern nutritional research is that in order for the body to build more blood cells, it needs certain materials. These herbs contain many of these materials.

For the athlete in training who wants to improve blood function, and thus stamina, the body must have enough of the right materials to build more blood cells. Blood cells are constantly being built and replaced, so the body needs to constantly take in the materials to build blood.

There are four main nutritional components to building blood: Amino acids, vitamin B12, Folic acid, and Iron. Amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins that form the blood cells. These are most readily available in meats, and other complete protein-rich foods.

Vitamin B12 activates the amino acids during the process of protein formation. Vitamin B12 adds reddish color to organ meats, seafood, egg yolks, fermented soy and fermented dairy. Vitamin B12 breaks down at temperatures higher than 100 degrees Celsius. In order to get the most Vitamin B12 these foods should be boiled/steamed or only lightly fried. Folic acid works with Vitamin B12 in protein and tissue formation. It is found in dark leafy vegetables and is often added to many types of bread.

Ultimately, the red blood cell is a carrier for iron, which holds the oxygen. Iron is most prevalent in liver and other organ meats, fruit, legumes (beans) and dark leafy vegetables. In its oxidized form, iron provides a rust color to foods. In fact, the rust-brown color in feces is actually old red blood cells being removed from the body.

General guide for blood building.

  • Eat dark-colored foods. Vitamin B12 and iron add a reddish tone to foods and darken the overall color of foods. Dark-colored foods tend to have higher levels of antioxidants. The destruction of color through overcooking is an indication of nutrient loss. However, cooked vegetables digest better than raw vegetables and make more nutrients available to the body than raw vegetables. Cook vegetables just until the colors are bright.

  • Eat a combination of protein sources that provide different types of amino acids. Varieties of proteins provide more types of materials to your body.

  • Eat fermented foods. There are some food scientists who are starting to question the lack of fermented foods, which contain B12, in the modern diet. There is some suspicion that fermented foods do a better job of providing nutrition than the unfermented variations. Fermented foods include fermented cheeses and fermented soy products such as miso and tofu.

  • Boil and steam food as opposed to roasting. High levels of heat destroy many nutrients. Lower heat preparation methods preserve many nutrients.

  • If you are a vegetarian athlete, it is vitally important that you learn how to combine foods to create complete proteins and get the nutrients you need. Using rice and beans or corn and squash as well as other combinations can give you complete proteins.

  • Always avoid lead exposure. Lead is found in the paint dust of old houses; on some decorative plates and crystal; and in some canned goods and fish. Lead easily replaces Iron in the Heme and prevents that blood cell from carrying oxygen. This is why lead exposure is associated with learning disabilities, as the blood fails to carry enough oxygen to the growing brains of children. There are lead test kits available to check your home. Another trick is to look at the paint in your house or other places where you spend time. Lead paint cracks in a very distinctive way, with rectangular cracks that look like the layout of a brick wall. If you have this type of cracked paint in your home, get professional advice about proper removal.

Traditional blood nourishing herbs, listed earlier, can also be used. Often these herbs are present in herbal trauma formulas, or can be supplemented. An overdose of these types of herbs can result in a heavy sluggish feeling. Women who have heavy periods may see increased cramping and blood flow when using these types of herbs. Always consult with a nationally certified herbalist before starting any herbal protocol.

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About the Author:

David Bock, C.Ac. Dipl.OM, FABORM, is a teacher of Wadokai Aikido (under Roy Suenaka Sensei), a Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist, NCCAOM National Board Certified in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology, author of the online column “The Practical Herbalist” at He can be reached at David is a regular contributor to

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

stamina, Dang gui, bai shao, shu di huang, e jiao

Read more articles by David Bock

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