The Mental Side of Sports Nutrition

Getting the edge on fitness is not just about the body any more. There is another area that has not gotten nearly enough attention: the brain. It can benefit from the right nutrition just like any other part of the body. Athletes dedicate hours upon hours exercising, all the while consuming nutritional supplements to improve physical performance. Investing in cognitive function is just as important as fueling your muscles.

Are You Overtraining?

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 of rest. Chronic overtraining can create a disturbance in the ratio between the anabolic hormone, testosterone, and the catabolic hormone cortisol. (1)

Performance-Enhancing Ingredients

Reduce exercise-induced stress, improve reaction time, support neuroprotective properties and promote motivation, concentration and focus.

PHOSPHATIDYLSERINE for Muscle Soreness, Recovery and Overall Well-Being

Clinical trials have shown Phosphatidylserine (PS) supplementation 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 in the body, and is highly prevalent in neural tissue. In fact, PS is most concentrated in the brain where it comprises 15% of the total phospholipid pool. Studies examining athletes involved in cycling, weight training, and endurance running demonstrated PS might help prevent muscle soreness, speed 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 ACTH responses to staged cycling exercise. Compared to placebo, cortisol levels were 30% lower, demonstrating PS supplementation can lessen the severity of stress responses to exercise. (3)

 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. During the two-week training period in which these athletes were deliberately overtrained, 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.

ACETYL L-CARNITINE for Mental Performance

Acetyl-L Carnitine (ALCAR) is a compound found naturally in your muscles, heart, liver, kidneys and plasma. It's essential for energy production and fat metabolism, and the average human body contains 20-25g of L-Carnitine, with 95% of it located in skeletal muscles.

Want an extra edge during your workout? Focus on improving your mental agility and alertness. Acetyl L-carnitine has been primarily used by athletes to increase maximal aerobic power and helping burn stored fat, but currently it's being recognized for its ability to improve mental as well as physical performance. (5)

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. 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. The people who took ALCAR showed statistically significant improvement in their behavioral performances, memory tests, attention tests and Verbal Fluency tests. (6)

Some studies have also indicated ALCAR may help improve sensory perception, especially in the areas of sight and sound. Users also reported their reflexes are faster and reaction times are shorter. (7)

VINPOCETINE for Reaction Time

Vinpocetine, derived from the Periwinkle plant, may potentially increase blood flow to the brain and improve reaction time. One study demonstrated an improvement in reaction speed and performance on a memory test, however other studies assessing reaction speed or attention combined it with other nutrients. Increased reaction speed, as well as increased processing speed, have been seen in a rehabilitative setting with NFL football players (combined with Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Fish Oil, Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Huperzine-A)and elsewhere with Vinpocetine (10mg) paired with Ginkgo biloba(40mg) and micronutrients. (8, 9) 

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. 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% increases in percentile scores.

HUPERZINE-A as a Cognitive Enhancer

Huperzine-A is an alkaloid isolated from the Chinese herb Huperzia serrata. Studies indicate it's a cognitive enhancer that blocks the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which damages the learning neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, causing a relative increase in acetylcholine to occur. 

In addition to acetylcholinesterase inhibition, other neuroprotective properties have been identified — reduce oxidative stress, regulate the expression of apoptotic proteins, protect mitochondria, and upregulate nerve growth factor. (11, 12)

Nutrition has always been an essential focus in athletics, but the focus on the effects of cognitive nutrition has been rather narrow, focusing instead on the physical benefits. The Central Fatigue Hypothesis states fatigue is governed by the central nervous system, and not the muscles themselves, suggesting fatigue is actually coming from the brain. (13) 

Cognitive function is influenced by nutrition and the positive effect cognitive sports 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. (14)

Jack Grogan, Chief Science Officer for Healthy Goods


1. Fahey TD. Biological markers of overtraining. Biol Sport. 1997;14:1–19.

2. Ralf Jäger et al, Phospholipids and sports performance. Published online 2007 Jul 25.

3. Monteleone P, Maj M, Beinat L, Natale M, Kemali D. Blunting by chronic phosphatidylserine administration of the stress-induced activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in healthy men. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1992;42:385–388.

4. Fahey TD, Pearl MS. The Hormonal and Perceptive Effects of Phosphatidylserine Administration During Two Weeks of Weight Training-Induced Over-Training. Biol Sport. 1998;15:135–144.

5. Broquist, H.P. and Borum, P.R. 1982, Carnitine Biosynthesis. Nutritional Implications. Advances in Nutr. Res.4: 181-204.4

6. Sinforiani E, Iannuccelli M, Mauri M, Costa A, Merlo P, Bono G, Nappi G. Neuropsychological changes in demented patients treated with acetyl-L-carnitine. Int J Clin Pharmacol Res. 1990.

7. Passeri M, Iannuccelli M, Ciotti G, Bonati PA, Nolfe G, Cucinotta D. Mental impairment in aging: selection of patients, methods of evaluation and therapeutic possibilities of acetyl-L-carnitine. Int J Clin Pharmacol Res. 1988.

8. Amen DG, et al. Reversing brain damage in former NFL players: implications for traumatic brain injury and substance abuse rehabilitation. J Psychoactive Drugs. (2011)

9. Polich J, Gloria R. Cognitive effects of a Ginkgo biloba/vinpocetine compound in normal adults: systematic assessment of perception, attention and memory.Hum Psychopharmacol. (2001)

10. Amen DG, et al. Reversing brain damage in former NFL players: implications for traumatic brain injury and substance abuse rehabilitation. J Psychoactive Drugs. (2013)  Effects

11. Effects of huperzine A on acetylcholinesterase isoforms in vitro: comparison with tacrine, donepezil, rivastigmine and physostigmine. Published online 2007.

12. Progress in studies of huperzine A, a natural cholinesterase inhibitor fro Chinese herbal medicine.  Published online 2006.

13. Acworth I, Nicholass J, Morgan B, Newsholme EA. Effect of sustained exercise on concentrations of plasma aromatic and branched-chain amino acids and brain amines.  Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. 1986;137(1):149-53.

14. Lemyre P-N, Treasure DC, Roberts GC. Sport Psychology. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 2006;28:32-48.













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