Tip: Natural Blood Doping

Boost EPO production and red blood cells with this performance-enhancing plant compound.

EPO and Blood Doping

EPO, or erythropoietin, is a glycoprotein produced by your kidneys. It's responsible for making the red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. The more red blood cells you have, the better your cardiovascular and muscular endurance.

Athletes have long sought to increase red blood cell count, and therefore endurance, through the use of anabolic steroids and "blood doping," where you draw some of your own blood, store it in the fridge behind the sauerkraut, and then transfuse it back just before a competition.

Things got a lot easier, though, when a genetically engineered version of EPO, Epotein Alfa, arrived on the market in 1984. It, and the other, cruder methods mentioned above gave cyclists, boxers, runners, triathletes, and even racehorses a considerable advantage over their opponents.

The trouble is, using blood doping, steroids, or genetically engineered EPO is often too much of a good thing. If you increase the number of red blood cells too dramatically, your blood turns from something that flows freely through your veins to something with the consistency of molasses on a cold, winter day. That ain't good. Your ticker doesn't like that.

However, Chinese scientists have found that a component of the herb, rhodiola, also increases the production of EPO, but certainly not to the degree of the previously mentioned tactics.

People in China, Korea, and the former Soviet Union have long embraced various plants and herbs to help them deal with stress and fatigue. They referred to them collectively as "adaptogens" because they helped people adapt to stress and fatigue.

Rhodiola, in particular, was and is used to reduce the effects of physical exhaustion. People who live at high altitudes also use it to cope with vapor-thin air. And now we know it does all this, at least in part, because it increases EPO production.

To test the effects of Rhodiola, scientists placed different concentrations of salidroside, the main biologically active component of Rhodiola, into test tubes mixed with human kidney and liver cells.

Sure enough, the salidroside spurred the cells to produce EPO. Apparently, the substance kicks up the production of a protein named HIF-1-alpha, which is produced when cells are short on oxygen. HIF-1-alpha, in turn, boosts the production of EPO.

To increase endurance before training or a competition, take a couple of hundred milligrams of a high-salidroside Rhodiola formula about an hour before training. Same thing if you're going to lead a group of mountaineers up Everest.

  1. Zheng KY et al. Salidroside stimulates the accumulation of HIF-1α protein resulted in the induction of EPO expression: a signaling via blocking the degradation pathway in kidney and liver cells. Eur J Pharmacol. 2012 Mar 15;679(1-3):34-9.