Minerals to maximize cognitive function for esports applications

Magnesium, iron and zinc are among the key minerals research links to potential esports benefits.

Stephen Ashmead, Senior Fellow

September 24, 2020

5 Min Read
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Insider Takes

  • Gamers need to excel in mental acuity, eye function, concentration, muscle movement and more.

  • Due to extensive screen time, esports players must take stock of their physical and mental health.

  • Magnesium, iron and zinc are among the key minerals research links to potential esports benefits.

Back in the 1980s, participating in esports meant going to the local arcade (uphill both ways) to spend a few quarters playing video games. Inevitably, there would be that one person who was exceptionally good at a game—as evidenced by the crowd gathered around watching.

Fast forward a few decades, and esports have evolved radically from the coin-driven arcade. Esports are already a globally dominant force with the market revenue surpassing $776.4 million in 2018, according to Statista; and given the current pandemic, the interest in gaming has only increased. According to Twitch, a global livestreaming platform for gamers, it saw a 52% jump in viewers from January 2020 to April 2020 and a 50% increase in monthly streamers. Statista predicted global esports market revenue will reach nearly $1.6 billion by 2023. This form of entertainment has quickly become a profession for many players and is even slated to be part of the 2024 Summer Olympics taking place in Paris. A 2019 article in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine stated more than 50 U.S. colleges established varsity gaming teams within the last three years, with many offering esports scholarships.

Esports players spend a tremendous amount of time in front of the screen, raising valid concerns for their physical and mental health. Taylor Johnson, who has worked with professional sports teams including the San Francisco 49ers, is now a consultant for esports organizations. The importance of the mental game is not lost on him. In an article on the Red Bull site, he noted, “There’s been research and studies showing the benefits of physical training and nutrition to improve cognitive function, increasing blood flow, processing speed and reaction times.”

All athletes, including those involved with esports, are dependent on cognitive processes to be successful. These players must recognize patterns and dynamically adapt to ever-changing conditions. This requires that the cognitive determinants and supporting processes be operating at optimal efficiency. For example, when spending long hours in front of a screen, esports players must be able to focus exclusively on that screen—ignoring distractions, recognizing the pattern of the game, forming a tactical strategy, and translating that strategy into a coordinated muscle movement that will keep their avatar from being damaged. Proper nutrition is essential to this process, with minerals playing physiologically essential roles in supporting cognitive function.

Magnesium plays a large role in energy management and brain function. In a scientific review,1 neurologist Marcus Raichle of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis noted the human brain represents only about 2% of the average adult’s body’s weight. However, it consumes a disproportionate amount of energy—20%. Hence, the brain is one of the largest consumers of energy.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy currency of the body. But for it to be biologically active, ATP must be bound to a magnesium ion, generally to one of the phosphate groups. Researchers have studied magnesium homeostasis on mitochondrial function. One research group looked at Mrs2 knockdown cervical cells (HeLa) as an in vitro model for study.2 Mrs2 is a mitochondrial magnesium ion channel that controls the influx of magnesium ions into the mitochondrial space. When knocked down, the influx of magnesium ions into the mitochondria is impaired. The researchers found that compared to control cells, there was a suppression of various metabolites associated with the tricarboxylic acid (TCA, or Krebs) cycle—namely malate, citrate, cis-aconitate and succinate. Additionally, they found using fluorescence techniques that the ATP levels in Mrs2 knockdown cells was lower than in control cells. This research suggests that magnesium is deeply imbedded in ATP production and is an essential nutrient for energy management.

Another mineral nutrient essential to cognitive function is iron. One of its primary physiologic roles is transporting oxygen to all the tissues, including the brain. One of the classic symptoms of iron deficiency is fatigue.

The role of iron in hemoglobin and myoglobin has been known for decades as a carrier of oxygen in the blood and muscle tissue respectively, and iron deficiency anemia has been recognized as a common nutritional disease. Efforts have been put in place in many developed and developing countries to fortify staple foods with iron to prevent iron deficiency.

One of the clinical measures of iron deficiency is hemoglobin levels—a measurement of the very protein that carries oxygen. One study found a high incidence of iron deficiency in both male and female elite runners and triathletes.3

While zinc is more known for its role modulating the inflammatory and immune systems, it also influences cognitive function. First, on the input side of cognition, zinc is essential for eye function. It has been shown to interact with taurine and vitamin A, modify photoreceptor plasma membranes, regulate the light-rhodopsin reaction, and modulate synaptic transmission.4 Second, in the brain, zinc is found in high concentrations in the hippocampus, frontal cortex and amygdala. One review indicated zinc is involved within zincergic neurons that release glutamate and zinc upon excitation.5 The review examined the potential link between zinc deficiency and symptoms of depression. By ensuring adequate zinc intake, esports athletes are helping to mitigate potential negative impacts on cognition and vision that can occur in zinc deficiency.

Minerals play a variety of critical roles in the body, from helping maintain a healthy immune system to supporting bone health, energy production and many other functions. As gamers become increasingly aware of the importance of good nutrition in overall health—and particularly, how minerals may support cognitive function—esports can join the list of arenas armed to maximize performance.

Stephen Ashmead, MBA, is a senior fellow for Balchem Corp. His area of specialty is mineral amino acid chelates and their functions.


1 Raichle ME. “Two views of brain function.” Trends Cogn Sci. 2010;14(4):180-190.

2 Yamanaka R et al. “Mitochondrial Mg2+ homeostasis decides cellular energy metabolism and vulnerability to stress.” Sci Rep. 2016;6:30027.

3 Coates A, Mountjoy M, Burr J. “Incidence of Iron Deficiency and Iron Deficient Anemia in Elite Runners and Triathletes.” Clin J Sport Med. 2017;27(5):493-498.

4 Grahn BH et al. “Zinc and the eye.” J Am Coll Nutr. 2001;20(2):106-118.

5 Mlyniec K. “Zinc in the Glutamatergic Theory of Depression.” Curr Neuropharmacol. 2015;13(4):505-513.


About the Author(s)

Stephen Ashmead

Senior Fellow, Balchem Corporation

Stephen Ashmead, MS, MBA, is a Senior Fellow for Balchem Corporation.  His area of specialty is in mineral amino acid chelates and their functions.

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