Promising ingredients to improve cognitive performance in athletes and active consumers

Research on ingredients such as CBD and creatine offer potential dietary tools to boost and protect the brain.

Steve Myers, Senior Editor

December 10, 2019

8 Min Read
SSW19 cognitive session

Athletes, gamers, soldiers and all sorts of active consumers realize their brains are important muscles for performance. Experts in consumer research, CBD, omega-3s and research on a wide array of brain health nutrients highlighted key trends, science and ingredients in the two-hour “Mind Games: Cognitive Performance” workshop at SupplySide West 2019.

The market research firm FMCG Gurus has conducted global consumer surveys on topics related to brain health, and the company’s sales & marketing director Rooban Princely outlined the recent findings on sleep, anxiety and cognitive health issues.

About 30 percent of consumers from 26 countries reported suffering from regular sleep and anxiety issues, with various levels of stress a major factor. Whether viewed as half full or half empty, about 50% of those polled were satisfied with their sleep and related quality of life. Further, more than 20% reported suffering from various cognitive-related problems, including forgetfulness (23%), periodic memory loss (20%), regular headaches (22%), blurred vision (20%), fatigue (28%), lack of concentration (21%) and lack of sharpness (20%); lack of focus wasn’t far behind at 19%.

Such issues are triggering these consumers to natural solutions to improve sleep, stress management and cognitive function. One such popular ingredient is cannabidiol (CBD). Princely noted usage of CBD is relatively low, with North America and Europe leading the way. Pain relief and anxiety are the top drivers of CBD use, with overall cognitive health and sleep high on the list.

According to FMCG Guru’s findings, 40% of consumers are willing to give CBD a try if they understand the how it might help, and 50% think it should be legalized. While the exact numbers fluctuate from region to region, the main takeaway from the survey on CBD use was consumers want CBD in a variety of products such as creams, lotions, supplements, foods, beverages oils and vapes. However, they are concerned about side effects and safety of CBD products, and they feel very undereducated about CBD products and benefits. This lays out the challenge for CBD brands.

Retired Army Col. Michael Lewis, M.D., who runs the Brain Health Education and Research Institute, shared stories of how his clinical application of omega-3s and CBD/hemp oil has helped traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients, as an introduction to his talk on the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) and how CBD/hemp can help various consumers keep their brain muscle in optimal shape and stay on top of their mental game.

Starting with the two types of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body–CB1 receptors are mostly in the brain, while CB2s are mostly in the immune system–Lewis highlighted the importance of how this ECS functions, called endocannabinoid tone. Diet and exercise affect endocannabinoid tone, which “keeps internal bodily functions stable and controls how we think, feel, and react.”

Where balance of this system is a hallmark of having a “normal” mental state without pain, an imbalance can lead to migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), obesity, inflammation, insulin resistance/diabetes and mental health instability.

He highlighted some endocannabinoids such as anandamide, also known as the bliss molecule, and 2-arichidonyl glycerol (2-AG). Anandamide prompts pleasure/happiness response, stress coping, increased libido and decreased pain, cortisol and inflammation. 2-AG regulates immune function, quells inflammation, is neuroprotective, suppresses seizure activity, regulates the vascular system and improve gut-brain communication.

Lewis also detailed plant endocannabinoids, namely those from hemp, including CBD and CBG (cannabigerol). “Agriculture hemp is amazing,” he said, noting it is not psychoactive or toxic but is rich in nutrients such as essential fatty acids (EFAs), amino acids, Vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc. He said the acid form of CBD, cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), is like herbal ibuprofen and while it blocks COX-2 enzymes, it does not cause central nervous system side effects.

On CBD specifically, he explained it has little affinity for CB1 and CB2 receptors but it blocks a key enzyme (FAAH) from breaking down anandamide, allowing for continued bliss or happiness response. CBD is becoming a viable natural solution for depression, psychosis, addictive behavior, anxiety disorders, PTSD and TBI. In his clinical practice, Lewis has found CBD helps people recover from TBIs/concussions, improves ability to focus, and is “very effective against anxiety, depression.” He favors concentrated 15mg gelcaps once/twice a day and as needed throughout the day, and he added, “Raw CBD great for athletic recovery and inflammatory problems.” He further noted he uses CBD in conjunction with his Omega-3 Protocol.

Researcher Richard Kreider, Ph.D., Texas A&M University, took the baton and guided the workshop through “Ingredients Shown to Enhance Cognitive Performance and Neuroprotection for Active Consumers, Athletes, Military and Gamers.” He focused ingredients and targets such as stimulants, brain bioenergetics, neuroendocrine and neurotransmission, cerebral blood flow, phytochemicals and neuroprotection.

Of course, caffeine is a popular stimulant and can come from several dietary sources, including cocoa (Theobroma cacao), coffee (Coffea arabica, canephora, etc.), guarana, kola nut, tea (Camellia sinensis; black, Chinese, green and oolong) and yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis). He showcased research finding caffeine from these sources improve cognitive functions such as attention, memory and reaction time. He noted similar results in studies on other stimulants, including p-synephrine (bitter orange, Citrus aurantium), theacrine and yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe/johimbe). Further, caffeine- and glucose-containing energy drinks have been found to decrease sleepiness and improve cognitive performance and behavioral control.

On fueling the brain, Kreider singled out creatine, guanidinoacetic acid, s-adenosyl methionine and citicoline (a form of choline, a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine). Creatine is known for its vital role in mitochondrial bioenergetics, especially in fueling early intense exercise. Kreider noted, “Preventive supplementation creates a ‘reserve’ of brain creatine, protecting against the reduction caused by anticipated acute stressors, facilitating maintenance of usual brain function.” Low creatine levels in the brain can lead to cerebral creatine deficiency syndromes, depression, schizophrenia or senescence. “Therapeutic creatine supplementation restores brain creatine content, facilitating recovery of usual brain function,” he said.

He charted a list of creatine studies showing brain health and function benefits, including spatial recall, long-term memory, word recall, reversed sleep deprivation effects/performance deficits, balance and mood. He noted creatine improves cognitive performance during oxygen deprivation. This may be important research for athletes and soldiers active in high altitude environments.

Neuroendocrine function and neurotransmission are targets of several nutrients, including choline, Ginkgo biloba, betaine, Stachys sieboldii, taurine and tryptophan. Research shows choline supplementation can improve cognitive and locomotor performance by reducing oxidative stress, enhanced cholinergic neurotransmission and monoamine levels, at least in rats. In humans, citicoline (aka CDP-choline) “improved processing speed, working memory, verbal learning, verbal memory, and executive function in low baseline performers, while exerting no effects in medium baseline performers, and diminishing cognition in high baseline performers.”

Another approach to improving cognitive health and performance is to improve the flow of blood to the brain, which delivers more nutrients and oxygen to the noggin. Among the ingredients Kreider discussed as studied for improved cerebral blood flow were nitrates, arginine, flavanone-rich citrus juice, blueberry extract and resveratrol.

Beetroot juice is rich in nitrates and has been popular in sports nutrition for improved blood flow. However, research has been mixed, according to Kreider’s slides, which showed improved physiological function and exercise performance, but not cognitive function in moderate and high-altitude use. However, referencing other research, he reported, “Daily [beetroot juice] enhanced repeated sprint performance and may attenuate the decline in cognitive function (and specifically reaction time) that may occur during prolonged intermittent exercise.”

Likewise, recent studies have demonstrated a proprietary inositol-stabilized arginine silicate (as Nitrosigine, from Nutrition 21) significantly improved the ability to perform complex cognitive tests requiring mental flexibility, processing speed and executive functioning.

Phytochemicals can boost cognitive performance by addressing oxidative stress and free radicals, as well as improving cellular signal transduction. The wealth of such phytochemicals covered included phenolics and polyphenols (flavonoids, chalcones, isoflavones, flavanols, catechins, epicatechins and anthocyanins), terpines and alkaloids. Among the research highlighted were a studies showing grape juice improved reaction time, attention and calming; and, orange juice improving performance on executive function and psychomotor speed tests.

Finally, Kreider looked at neuroprotection from creatine, citicoline and omega 3-fatty acid supplementation. He explained creatine can be helpful following mild TBI: “[Creatine] may be useful as a neuroprotective agent against acute and delayed neurodegenerative processes.”

TBI “treatment” may be a no-go area for dietary supplement claims, but to emphasize the neuroprotective potential of creatine, Kreider called out the position stand published by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), which stated, ““These findings provide strong evidence that creatine supplementation may limit damage from concussions, TBI, and/or SCI. …government legislatures and sport organizations who restrict and/or discourage use of creatine may be placing athletes at greater risk—particularly in contact sports that have risk of head trauma and/or neurological injury thereby opening themselves up to legal liability.”

The session was filled with promising ingredients and trends for brands to consider when developing and formulating products for athletes and a range of other active consumers interested on boosting their mental game. In many cases, the research is limited but showed great potential.

For more on cognitive performance and sports nutrition at SupplySide West, check out the podcast, SupplySide West trends: Cognitive Rises, Rapinoe goes CBD and transparency beckons, with Steve Myers and INSIDER Content Director Sandy Almendarez.









About the Author(s)

Steve Myers

Senior Editor

Steve Myers is a graduate of the English program at Arizona State University. He first entered the natural products industry and Virgo Publishing in 1997, right out of college, but escaped the searing Arizona heat by relocating to the East Coast. He left Informa Markets in 2022, after a formidable career focused on financial, regulatory and quality control issues, in addition to writing stories ranging research results to manufacturing. In his final years with the company, he spearheaded the editorial direction of Natural Products Insider.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like