The use of food supplements and herbal medicinal products by the public, including athletes, is common practice – but it is not well regulated. There are guidelines on which supplements may be prohibited in competitive sports but there is little reliable information on which herbal medicines and supplements are of good quality.
At first glance, many supplements appear well labelled and their associated websites can provide plenty of information regarding ingredients. But problems can arise when someone – particularly an athlete – takes a product in good faith, which turns out to be something different to that which is presented on the label. At best, this results in the consumer not receiving the product they paid for. At worst, it could result in a competitive athlete being disqualified from competition for taking a banned substance, albeit unknowingly.
In research, conducted at UCL School of Pharmacy, on Ginkgo, Milk Thistle and Rhodiola rosea products, we discovered that 20-40% of the sampled products were mislabelled or contained adulterants. Any of these products may be used by athletes, but the case of Rhodiola rosea is particularly worrying. It is used purposely and widely to increase physical and mental endurance.
Rhodiola rosea, is also known as golden root, Russian root and Arctic root, names linked to its economic value and preferred habitat – cold locations, often at high altitude. It was used in the Russian space programme by cosmonauts to combat space fatigue, and is also utilised as a memory enhancer and aphrodisiac. Rhodiola rosea was traditionally used to prevent altitude sickness by helping to ensure good tissue oxygenation, which is also a prerequisite in sporting endurance and a reason why it is still widely – and legally – used by athletes today.