Special edition: Nootropics

Data supporting nootropics in sports nutrition still in beginning stages, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Jacob Lund
Getty Images / Jacob Lund
Sports nutrition has been one area of increasing interest for the marketers of nootropic ingredients. But one expert says that’s based more on extrapolation than solid science.

The basic idea is this: All movement starts in the mind. If a way can be found to improve focus and concentration, that should result in better performance during sports activity, especially in the end portion of contests. If that’s true, the idea can be expanded to better mental performance in other stressful situations, such as running a business, taking a test, etc.

Science, or marketing?

It’s an interesting marketing idea, but that’s what it is, mostly marketing, said Tim Avila, principal in the ingredient development firm Systems Bioscience. Avila has a long history in the dietary supplement industry of evaluating the science backing of ingredients for clients.

“I think it’s still in its early stages,”​ Avila told NutraIngredients-USA. “This idea is being presented by some suppliers with some very specific language but I think the research is lacking.”

A recent article in Outside Magazine​ posited that fatigue rests mostly in the mind​. Many texts on the subject have mostly cited research centered on cognitive training. For example, a study on cycling time trial performance​ found that participants who viewed images of smiling faces could on average ride three minutes longer than those who saw sad visages. 

In a recent book titled How Bad Do You Want It?​ author Matt Fitzgerald put it this way: “Exhaustion occurs during real-world endurance competition not when the body encounters a hard physical limit such as total glycogen depletion but rather when the athlete experiences the maximum level of perceived effort he is willing or able to tolerate…The inexorable slowing is not mechanistic, like a car running out of gas, but voluntary.”

A host of ingredients have purported to address this aspect of mental fatigue via nutritional support. While some have modes of action that can make a case for the idea, Avila said there is still little focused science that connects the dots. There are a few good studies to point to, he said, but far fewer than the marketing claims might suggest.

“When your brain gets tired you start making mistakes and you do lose performance,”​ Avila said. 

Difficult effect to study

The trick has been to design studies that drill down on that aspect while still being able to show a benefit. After exercise the body is in a charged and rapidly changing metabolic state as oxygen debts are made good, waste products like lactic acid are removed, adrenaline subsides while endorphins increase and so forth.

That tumultuous state is what appears to have impaired a recent study based on cocoa flavonol supplementation. While the ingredient was shown to increase brain oxygenation at rest, in the post exercise measure it could not show an effect on executive function​.

“This beneficial effect of CF on cerebral oxygenation at rest was overruled by the strong exercise-induced increases in cerebral perfusion and oxygenation,” ​the researchers wrote.

Old veteran and newer players

Avila said among the ingredients that do have science backing is one of the oldest dietary ingredients of all — caffeine.

“Suppliers are pushing anything to do with cognition in this area,” ​he said. “The reigning king is caffeine and there really is a lot of data on caffeine.”

But caffeine has its drawbacks. Its bitterness can’t be tolerated by some people and it can cause jitteriness or sleep disturbances in some subjects. And one recent review posited that the growth of caffeine use worldwide might have reached a level where the ingredient is crossing over a line from a useful dietary aid to a harmful substance​.

Ingredient developers have sought out caffeine like compounds that offer some of the benefits while bypassing the drawbacks. One such compound is theacrine, which can be extracted from tea leaves. Theacrine has the benefit of boosting dopamine production in the brain, whereas caffeine acts primarily as an adenosine antagonist.

Compound Solutions based in Carlsbad, CA, has brought to market a bioidentical form of theacrine branded as TeaCrine, which is the basis of one of the better studies on the subject​ in Avila’s opinion.

“Hector Lopez and Tim Zeigenfuss used theacrine in a study that simulated metal performance after a simulated soccer match,”​ Avila said. The study was published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements​.

Another study that takes this focused approach is one using Kyowa Hakko’s Cognizin brand of citicoline. The study found improved psychomotor response and attention among adolescent males​ when supplemented with the ingredient.

Supplement, or drug?

Avila said a basic conundrum that underlies the march toward efficacious ingredients to use in this area is that the high ground has already been occupied by drugs. Basketball players, baseball players, cyclists and other athletes have experimented on themselves for decades.

While most doping in sports has centered on increasing blood oxygen uptake or boosting muscle protein synthesis, the cognitive aspect has figured in, too, Avila said. In cycling in the years after World War II, it was a long romance with amphetamines. More recently in the NBA (and to some degree in baseball) it was the drug of the 80s—cocaine.

“We had a long, uncontrolled experiment with cocaine in the NBA in the 1980s,” ​Avila said.

Active Nutrition Online Event

Avila will take part in a discussion forum on May 23​ as part of NutraIngredients-USA’s upcoming Active Nutrition Online Event. The event will include a market overview session provided Diane Ray of the Natural Marketing Institute. It will also feature ingredient-specific sessions sponsored Kyowa Hakko USA and Mitsubishi International Food Ingredients.

Joining Avila on the discussion panel will be Susan Kleiner, PhD, a practicing sports nutritionist and cofounder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and Rachel Kreider, MPH, manager of innovation at bodybuilding.com​.

For more information on this FREE event and to register, click here​.

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