Drinking Rooibos Can Help South Africa Bring Home The Gold

As the excitement continues to mount in the countdown to the Tokyo Olympic Games, athletes will have trialled numerous dietary supplements to give them a competitive edge in the hope to set new records and bring home the gold.

However, few may have considered taking Rooibos tea.

New studies show that Rooibos has a number of performance-enhancing benefits that make it especially beneficial for athletes. A team of local scientists, who recently completed a second set of exercise trials at the Sport Performance Lab in Cape Town, say the tea may override burning muscles and the onset of fatigue. Prof Simeon Davies, Head of Sports Management at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) says Rooibos tea is by and large still an unappreciated beverage in sports considering its health benefits.

“Rooibos contains bio-active compounds known as polyphenols and flavonoids that are powerful antioxidants that could decrease oxidative stress, inflammation, muscular damage, fatigue and soreness – all factors that impact athletic functioning,”

The most recent trial investigated Rooibos’ role in minimising some or perhaps all of these factors and to what extent Rooibos could improve exercise output parameters and recovery. Forty athletes, aged between 18 and 60, who were considered healthy and physical fit participated in the experiment. Depending on which leg of the trial they were in they would either ingest 375 ml of Rooibos (with 340 mg total polyphenol content) or 375 ml of the placebo drink, which tasted and looked the same as Rooibos.

Participants were asked to slightly restrict flavonoids in their diet and to keep a record of their daily dietary intake. Either the Rooibos beverage or placebo drink was consumed with a standardised breakfast snack, 90 minutes before participating in a modified submaximal test (used to predict maximal aerobic capacity) on a wattbike (stationary bike). This was then followed by ten sets of 10-sec sprints. During tests, participants had a breath-by-breath analysis done to measure respiratory gas and blood samples were also taken during each exercise bout to measure various makers.

“In broad terms, the study measured for inflammatory response, muscular damage, fatigue and soreness,” says Prof Davies. “To do so, we looked at antioxidant content and related capacity indicators; redox status (balance between oxidants and antioxidants); oxidative lipid and protein damage; inflammatory markers; muscle damage and liver and kidney function. From an exertion perspective, we rated exercise output; power to weight ratio; energy expenditure; average and peak power output; final distance achieved and heart rate.

“While the data is presently being subjected to an independent statistical analysis, the preliminary findings indicate that Rooibos is a beneficial intervention that may improve exercise performance and reduces oxidative stress, inflammation and muscle damage.

“Due to the findings, the scope of the study will be extended to include the OMICS approach, which basically means we will utilise a holistic methodology looking at metabolites that are intermediate or end-products of cellular metabolism that play a crucial role in energy production, storage, cell signalling, apoptosis and provide information on the physiological state of the participant. The analysis of metabolites present will offer an opportunity to enhance and better understand physiological responses to internal and external stimuli/ stressor, such as exercise.

“This will give us guidance on Rooibos supplementation for potential enhanced exercise performance based on a clearer understanding of redox status of both elite and non-elite athletes, and the impact of genetic variability,” remarks Prof Davies.

Some elite SA athletes who are already reaping the benefits of incorporating Rooibos into their training regime include the likes of AJ Calitz and Hannele Steyn.

Calitz, an ultra-trail running champion, still kick-starts each day with a big mug of Rooibos, milk and honey as he did as a boy. “I drink it throughout the day, at work and after a run. It helps with rehydration and it’s the one thing I never leave home without when competing in overseas races.”

Among his achievements, include two Guinness World Records – one for The Greatest Vertical Height Gained in 12 hours (10 257 m) and 24 hours (19 376 m) on Table Mountain; the 100 km record for the Fish River Canyon; winner of the 100km Verdon Canyon Challenge in France (2013); four-time Red Bull Lionheart winner and the SA Ultra Trail Champion (2016), to name but a few.