Ketone supplement may boost athletic decision-making ability, study suggests

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Ketone esters may have cognitive boosting properties that enable athletes to make crucial decisions during the final stages of a match, according to two Dublin City University (DCU) researchers.

The discovery comes after athletes were put to the test in two experimental trials. While ketone esters did not improve physical performance, the preservation of cognitive function suggests ketones have a part to play in making the right choice during a sports match.

“Given that team sports athletes are presented with a multitude of decisions throughout match play, interventions that preserve or improve decision-making could positively influence performance outcomes,”​ said Dr Brendan Egan, lead investigator and associate professor of sport and exercise physiology at DCU.

“Despite the lack of benefit to physical performance, the novel finding of preserved executive function after exhausting exercises suggests that there remains a possibility that ketones could enhance sports-specific performances of team sport athletes.” 

Industry activity

Ketone ester supplements became commercially available earlier in 2017, with the launch of a Ketone Ester (D-beta-hydroxybutyrate and D 1,3-butanediol) sports drink created by US firm KetoneAid, who also provided the ketone ester (KE4) studied in this work.

Other companies making progress in this space include Oxford University’s spin-off company, T∆S Ltd, created to promote its own ketone drink called ΔG.

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Texan-based start-up Limited Labs make use of GoBHB, a branded form of exogenous ketone body beta hydroxybutyrate (βHB) to produce the first ketone-based beverage for the ready-to-drink market.

These firms are all betting on the science that indicate exogenous ketone supplements, namely ketone salts and ketone esters, are effective aids to enhancing physical performance.

Alongside caffeine and lesser known supplements such as hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), carnitine, chromium and creatine, are supplements marketed to boost athletic performance.

However, definitive scientific proof of their effectiveness is somewhat lacking or contradictory.

Drs Brendan Egan and Mark Evans of the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU enrolled 11 male team sports athletes in two main experimental trials – five 15 metre (m) bursts of intermittent running and a shuttle run to exhaustion.

A 6.4% carbohydrate-electrolyte solution was consumed before and during exercise either alone (PLA), or with 750 mg kg-1 of a ketone ester supplement (KE).

Heart rate (HR), rating of perceived exertion (RPE), and 15m sprint times were recorded throughout, and blood samples were taken to assess plasma glucose, lactate and βHB.

Study findings

Results found KE supplementation resulted in plasma βHB concentrations of around 1.5 to 2.6 milliMols (mM) during exercise. Plasma glucose and lactate concentrations were lower during KE compared to PLA.

Further results found HR, RPE and 15m sprint times did not differ between trials. In addition, run time to exhaustion was no different between PLA and KE.

Incorrect responses in a multitasking test increased from pre- to post-exercise in PLA but not KE.

‘A cognitive benefit after ketone ingestion’

“Compared to carbohydrate alone, co-ingestion of a ketone ester by team sport athletes attenuated the rise in plasma lactate concentrations, but did not improve shuttle run time to exhaustion or 15m sprint times during intermittent running,”​ the study concluded.

“An attenuation of the decline in executive function after exhausting exercise suggests a cognitive benefit after KE ingestion.”

The cognitive effects of ketone esters are an overlooked aspect of their function, with manufacturers preferring to focus on the physical enhancements in the competitive sports nutrition market.

Ketones can act as a fuel for the brain and muscle during periods of fasting or starvation – an observation noted​ in a non-exercise context in rats, where daily supplementation with a ketone monoester (KME) may have been of cognitive benefit.

“This outcome is consistent with our findings and suggests that central effects may be relevant during exercise, although other tests of cognitive function, i.e. reaction time and sustained attention tasks, were unaffected,”​ the study concluded.

Source: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001700
“Intermittent Running and Cognitive Performance after Ketone Ester Ingestion.”
Authors: Brendan Egan, Mark Evans

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