The Mental Side of Sports Nutrition

Natural ingredients, such as phosphatidylserine (PS), acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR), vinpocetine and huperzine-A, have been shown to help athletes’ brain function and, therefore, help with their sports performance.

Getting the edge on fitness is not just about the body. There’s another area that has not gotten nearly enough attention: the brain. The brain can benefit from the right nutrition just like any other part of the body. Athletes dedicate hours to exercising and consume nutritional supplements to improve physical performance. Investing in cognitive function, however, is just as important as providing for the muscles, if not more.

While traditionally the cognitive aspects of athletic performance have been given little attention, a new focus is on performance-enhancing ingredients for cognitive function, alertness and energy. Combining these two powerful supplement categories—brain health and sports nutrition—gives performance nutrition a great opportunity.

Natural ingredients can promote motivation, concentration and focus, improve reaction time and neuroprotective properties, and reduce exercise-induced stress.

Overtraining is now being recognized as a major stress and natural hazard of athletic training, and can result in decreased performance, injury, compromised immune function and psychological depression. Muscles become sore, resting heart rate and cortisol levels increase and testosterone levels fall. The body has difficulty adjusting, but can recover with a few days’ rest. Chronic overtraining can create a disturbance in the ratio between the anabolic hormone testosterone and the catabolic hormone cortisol.1

Clinical trials have shown phosphatidylserine (PS) supplementation to be effective for combating exercise-induced stress and preventing the physiological deterioration that comes with overtraining. PS is a type of fat found in cell membranes, and is highly prevalent in neural tissue. In fact, PS is most concentrated in the brain, where it comprises 15 percent of the total phospholipid pool. Studies examining athletes involved in cycling, weight training and endurance running demonstrated PS might help prevent muscle soreness, accelerate recovery and improve well-being.2

In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, cross-over design, Monteleone et al. showed PS supplementation suppressed cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) responses to staged cycling exercise.3 Compared to placebo response, cortisol levels were 30 percent lower, demonstrating PS supplementation can lessen the severity of stress responses to exercise.

A study conducted at California State University investigated the effect of PS on hormone levels, muscle soreness and feelings of well-being when administered to experienced, weight-trained athletes.4 During the two-week training period in which these athletes were deliberately over-trained, they reported less muscle soreness when they were taking PS compared to the placebo. In addition, subjects had an improved perception of well-being when taking PS, which was particularly evident after the first week of training.

Improved mental agility and alertness can enhance physical performance by promoting the motivation that delivers an extra edge. Although acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) supplementation has been primarily used by athletes to increase maximal aerobic power and help burn stored fat, it is increasingly being recognized for its ability to improve mental as well as physical performance. 5

ALCAR is a compound naturally found in human skeletal muscle, heart, liver, kidneys and plasma that is essential for energy production and fat metabolism. An average human body contains 20 to 25 g of L-carnitine, of which more than 95 percent is in skeletal muscles.6

Cognitive brain function benefits associated with ALCAR include an increase in memory and learning capacity along with an improved speed of memory recall and thought processing.7 Other studies showed subjects’ ability to think more clearly with a lengthened attention span, as well as improved overall concentration and focus. In a double-blind study in two randomized homogeneous groups of both sexes of 15 subjects each, one group underwent supplementation with ALCAR while the other group was given a placebo.8 The ALCAR supplemented subjects showed statistically significant improvement in behavioral performances, memory tests, attention tests and verbal fluency tests.

Some studies have also indicated ALCAR may help improve sensory perception, especially in the areas of sight and sound.9 Users also reported faster reflexes and shorter reaction times.

Vinpocetine, derived from the periwinkle plant, may potentially increase blood flow to the brain and improve reaction time. Increased reaction speed, as well as increased processing speed, have been seen in a rehabilitative setting with NFL players (combined with acetyl-l-carnitine, fish oil, alpha-lipoic acid and huperzine-A)10 and elsewhere with vinpocetine (10 mg) paired with Ginkgo biloba (40 mg) and micronutrients.11

Another potential use for vinpocetine may be in the support of traumatic brain injuries or concussions, in that it appears to have a role in neuroprotection and reducing neural inflammation. A study using brain SPECT images and a standard neuropsychological test measured blood flow in the areas of the brain related to cognitive function and proficiency related to mood, memory, language, attention, information speed and accuracy.12 The athletes followed a protocol that included nutritional supplements, including vinpocetine, phosphatidylserine and ALCAR, among others. Within six months, the players were measured again. The results showed significant increases in cognitive scores, blood flow and self-reported symptoms of mood, memory and motivation. Many athletes had greater than 50 percent increases in percentile scores.

Huperzine-A is an alkaloid isolated from the Chinese herb Huperzia serrata. Studies indicated it is a cognitive enhancer that blocks the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which damages the learning neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, causing a relative increase in acetylcholine to occur.13 In addition to acetylcholinesterase inhibition, other neuroprotective properties have been identified. These protective effects are related to its ability to reduce oxidative stress, regulate the expression of apoptotic proteins, protect mitochondria and upregulate nerve growth factor.14

Nutrition has always been an essential focus for athletics, but the focus on the effects of cognitive nutrition has been rather narrow, with more attentionon physical benefits. However, the Central Fatigue Hypothesis states fatigue is governed by the central nervous system, and not the muscles themselves, suggesting that fatigue is coming from the brain.15 These important studies demonstrate that cognitive function is strongly influenced by nutrition and the positive effect cognitive nutrients have on athletic performance in the form of reducing exercise-induced stress, promoting motivation, concentration and focus, improving reaction time, and providing neuroprotective properties.16

Jack Grogan is chief science officer for Uckele Health & Nutrition. He is a recognized expert in hair mineral analysis, a tool in determining the causes of nutritional imbalances or deficiencies. With considerable experience in the fields of biology, biochemistry and nutrition, he has been influential in the development of hundreds of proprietary nutritional formulas and programs.


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