Published in Healthy & Natural Journal, May 1995

Herbal Treasures from the Amazon

Part 3: Amazon Herbs for Athletic Performance and Recovery

by Dr. Donna Schwontkowski

In 1982, a spinal cord injury of the lower cervical spine changed Brenda Cole’s life. Doctors told her she would be bedridden the rest of her life, never able to sit up again. Slowly, over time, her positive attitude, determination and faith helped her progress to using a wheelchair and even driving a car.

But that wasn’t good enough for Brenda.Physically active before her injury, she decided to enter some quadriplegic rugby and wheelchair races. At first, she experienced a lot of muscle soreness and fatigue both during and after the races. “I was at a standstill in my recovery,” she says. “I wasn’t super strong by any means. In fact, I would often come in last place.

I recall one wheelchair race when I looked behind and saw a motorcycle cop following me, along with all this traffic. All the spectators thought the race was over! I was so embarrassed.” Shortly thereafter, Brenda was introduced to two Amazon/Chinese herbal combinations that dramatically changed her performance.

In a short period of time, she won her first gold medal in the wheelchair races. Her normal twice-a-week, 3-hour practices for quad rugby never left her out of breath. “Some of the male quad rugby players still get upset with me because I’m not even winded.

They’re half-dead and sore after practice. Not me anymore. Not even during the strenuous rugby training clinics when we work out for two full 8-hour days. Since I started taking the herbs, no motorcycle cops follow me anymore. In my last race, even though I didn’t get first place, I was right on the winner’s wheels for the whole race… It was so close. One more good breath and I could have beat her.” Brenda Cole doesn’t count how many gold medals she’s won anymore, losing track after twelve.

Brenda used an Amazon/Chinese herbal formula before training and competitive events and another Amazon/Chinese combination after her workout. The Chinese herb base in both formulas originated from Shaolin monastery martial artists in China, who used them prior to battles and then afterwards to speed recovery.

Amazon herbs had been added to the basic Chinese formula for increased circulation, nervous system balance, anti-inflammatory effects on muscles, ligaments and joints, and for the relief of soreness.

The primary Amazon herbs used for their synergistic effects during athletic training and recovery include the following: Catuaba and Marapuama as strong tonics and nervous system fortifiers; Marapuama also for its anti-rheumatic properties; Sarsaparilla to increase circulation, clear toxins and stimulate metabolism; Iporuru for support of muscle and joint structure; Samambaia for detoxification of waste products and anti-rheumatic properties; Una de gato for antioxidant properties; Tayuya to remove lactic acid accumulations; and Suma for anabolic (muscle-building) effects. (See Table 1)

Scientific Names of Amazon Herbs for Athletic Performance and Recovery

Common Name                            Scientific Name

Marapuama                                 Ptychopetalum uncinatum

Sarsaparilla                                  Smilax officinalis

Iporuru                                        Alchornia castaneifolia

Samambaia                                  Polypodium lepidopteris

Una de gato                                  Uncaria tomentosa

Tayuya                                         Cayaponia tayuya

Suma                                             Pfaffia paniculata

Table 1

Of these eight herbs, Suma (Pfaffia paniculata) is by far the most well-researched. Studies by Okui and Otaka dating back to 1968 revealed that the plant enhanced muscle-building without producing the negative hormonal effects steroids are noted for. By 1976, the Russian scientist V.N. Syrov was convinced that the anabolic agent in Suma was beta-ecdysterone. This gave the Russians the competitive edge in the Olympics, and Suma began to be called “the Russian Secret.”

A dosage of 500 mg. of Suma twice a day helped all athletes during any stage of their training, according to a research report by Health Research which studied amateur athletes. Experiment participants first noted a “sense of well-being” within 3-5 days, and a new increased desire to get to their next training session. Weight lifters experienced much less pain during heavy lifts when they took Suma.

These researchers recommended 500 mg. for every 40 lbs. of body weight, spread out evenly in two divided doses, for the maximum gain in muscle strength and size. During a 54-day period (almost 8 weeks), the dosage was only taken on days 1-10, 16-25, and days 31-40. Despite the 24 days off the herb, researchers reported that Suma’s effects were still felt by the athletes on the off days.


Christopher Castellano, an exercise physiologist from Orlando, FL, released the final results of his rowing ergometer performance study in January of 1995. This single-blind study tested eight male and female volunteers, 18-58 years old, using each subject as his or her own control. Between October 1994 and January 1995, each subject performed to the best of his ability on the rowing ergometer for a distance of 2500 meters; the time was recorded. Attempts were made to avoid influence from other variables.

For example, all subjects were tested at the same time, every other day, to avoid significant differences due to the effects of meals and circadian rhythms.Five trials were used as a control with no supplemental herbs; only water with a small amount of food coloring to match the experimental beverage was given to the subjects. The five experimental trials were supplemented with not only the Amazon/Chinese formula for mental focus, power, strength and endurance, but also with a specific Amazonian combination with blood sugar-regulating effects and one which enhanced circulation in the body.

Not many research projects produce the results recorded in this study. Every trial using the supplemental herbal combinations was better than the control for every individual in the study. Subjects with the lowest level of fitness seemed to benefit most from the products, although this could be an effect due to conditioning.

Christopher Castellano believes that the Amazonian herbs probably assisted the body in increasing respiratory volume and blood circulation, and in greater lactate removal during aerobic and anaerobic respiration. Additional studies will need to be done to confirm the exact physiological mechanisms.


Testimonials bring out not only the ability of these herbs to oxygenate the system, but also the important role they play in balancing the nervous system. Good hand, foot and eye coordination – essential for sports – depends on a finely-tuned nervous system. Amazon herbs traditionally used as nervous system tonics or fortifiers include Catuaba, Lemon Balm, Passion Flower, Marapuama, Mulungu, Star Anise, Suma, and Una de gato. (See Table 2 and Table 3)Catuaba is not only a strong tonic and fortifier of the nervous system, according to the tribal folklore, but is also capable of giving strength to people with general fatigue. This herb has been known to eliminate restless sleep and insomnia, and also to help failing memories.

Lemon Balm relaxes the nervous system as well as helping to produce sleep. It has been used traditionally for epilepsy, nerve disorders, insomnia, fainting, hysteria, migraine headaches, hypochondria and vertigo.

Passion Flower is known throughout the world for its natural sedative properties. It promotes sleepiness without disorientation, and soothes general pain. It is consistently used with good results for nervous system disorders such as insomnia, nervous crises, hysteria, depression, as well as headaches of nervous origin.

Marapuama is a good tonic for the nervous system and useful in treating symptoms of neuralgia or nervous depression. Mulungu is used in Brazil and Peru as a mild hypnotic sedative to calm the nervous system, eliminate hysteria, decrease insomnia and promote healthy sleeping patterns by sedating overactive neurotransmitters. Mulungu has also been used to treat epilepsy.

Star Anise is used as a sedative and induces sleep. It is thought to prevent fainting. Suma is used as an adaptogen and known for its oxygenating properties in Brazil. Una de gato is used to treat cases of organic depression.

Many people have reported beneficial effects from a combination of Amazon herbs that enhance the functioning of the nervous system. Effects include feelings that stress is immediately relieved, feelings calm in the midst of an emotional chaotic situation, and negating the hyperactivity associated with high caffeine consumption.

But what about the ability of the Amazon herbs to facilitate recovery? Is it possible that some natural substances can work a lot quicker than things our own culture uses now?


The testimonials and case studies speak for themselves. Charlie Mark, now 45 years old, suffered multiple fractured bones in an airplane accident in 1980. Prior to the accident, he was a boxer and active in many other sports. Arthritis affected his hands so much that he would have to give up his golf game after the 3rd or 4th hole. Charlie tried the Amazon herb Iporuru, and felt an improvement instantly.

The pain is completely eliminated when he takes the Amazon/Chinese combination for recovery. Recently, Charlie was trimming a gemstone and almost cut off the tip of his index finger.

The cut required 5 stitches. He began using Amazon herbs directly on the injured area. Two days later he noticed completely new skin at the wound site.Fifty-two year old Rose R. found out she had colon cancer after intense abdominal pain sent her on a trip to the emergency room.

The cancer was so far advanced that a colostomy was performed immediately. Rose started taking Amazon herbs. “I would go to sleep at night and could actually see a big difference in the colostomy opening the next morning.” She continued to take the herbs, and has had no serious side effects from the chemotherapy.

Scientific Names of Amazon Herbs Traditionally Used for the Nervous System

Common Name                          Scientific Name

Catuaba                                       Juniperis brasiliensis

Lemon Balm                               Melissa officinalis

Marapuama                               Ptychopetalum uncinatum

Passion Flower                          Passiflora incarnata

Mulungu                                     Erythrina mulungu

Star Anise                                  Illicium anisaturm

Suma                                           Pfaffia paniculata

Una de Gato                               Uncaria tomentosa

Table 2

One hot summer day in 1993 while Anna B. was giving a seminar, a bee flew in and stung her right cheek. Immediately swelling resulted, and the only first aid treatment available was Amazon herbs. A drop of a combination containing samabaia, sarsaparilla, tayuya and Iporuru visibly reduced swelling and allowed the area to heal within two days.

Massage therapists and chiropractors report a significant reduction in muscle spasms when the herbs are rubbed directly into the affected muscle. Mothers state that having their children gargle with the Amazon herbs (in tincture form) eliminates a sore throat within seconds. Individuals with skin grafts report a visible improvement daily and healing time cut in half.

Table 3

Amazon Herbs Traditionally Used for Specific Nervous System Conditions

Nervous System Relaxants

Star Anise, Lemon Balm, Passion Flower, Mulungu

Nervous System Tonics

Catuaba, Marapuama, Una de Gato, Suma


Passion Flower, Depression, Passion Flower, Marapuama, Una de gato, Suma



Helps Promote Sleep

Catuaba, Lemon Balm, Passion Flower, Mulungu, Star Anise


Mulungu, Passion Flower

Nervous System Fortifier

Catuaba, Suma

More research is being done on the mechanism of how these herbs work. In my ongoing series of articles, I have focused on the ability of Amazon herbs to facilitate blood sugar regulation, immune system enhancement, optimal functioning of the nervous system, restoration of hormonal balance in the male and female reproductive systems, enhanced athletic performance, and recovery and accelerated healing times.

In my practice, I have seen these herbs turn around many seemingly impossible health situations. As our awareness of the efficacy of natural healing increases, more people will discover and benefit from the value of Amazon herbs and incorporate them into their daily wellness programs.

Dr. Donna Schwontkowski obtained her doctorate degree in Chiropractic Medicine from National College of Chiropractic in Lombard, IL, simultaneously with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Northern Illinois University in 1990. Her long-standing interest in natural healing therapies and her extensive experience in the field of nutrition prompted a research project in 1991 on the effects of an Amazonian herbal combination on weight loss in adults.

She continues to research the Rainforest herbs, and is currently on a nationwide radio circuit to educate people on how they may benefit from the use of these herbs. Her chiropractic practice in Salt Lake City emphasizes the natural healing treasures from the Amazon Rainforest.

Schwontkowski has written a book called Herbs from the Amazon: Traditional and Common Uses.

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