Brain Health and Sports Nutrition Team Up in Dietary Supplements

Nov 7, 2016


When two powerhouse supplement categories come together, it’s a sight to behold. Take brain health and sports nutrition. These two behemoths are more often joining forces these days as smart marketers take the benefits of brain-health supplements to athletes.

“The brain-health category has grown very well over the years, and this new focus [on athletic supplements] is proof of that,” says Chase Hagerman, brand director for Chemi Nutra (Austin, TX), which supplies the ingredient AlphaSize alpha-glyceryl phosphoryl choline (A-GPC) both for brain-health and sports supplements.

“There is a growing need for cognitive products for sports,” confirms Avner Avissara, vice president, nutrition, at lipid-ingredients supplier Enzymotec (Migdal HaEmek, Israel). “Traditionally, the cognitive aspects of athletic performance were given very low attention.” But, he says, that’s changing these days “as the science of sport evolves [and] there is an increasing consumer awareness of the importance of cognitive supplementation for athletes.”

This marriage of brain-health and sports-nutrition ingredients is still relatively new, and Avissara points out that “there aren’t yet a lot of products to fulfill this need.” This also means, however, that a “great opportunity” exists for cognitive products in the sports market. “[Adding] cognitive claims to the basket of claims used by sports-nutrition brands can help those brands differentiate themselves from the crowd,” he points out.

Where brain-wellness ingredients seem to best benefit athletes for now is in the areas of focus, mood, and sleep. Ingredients that are getting more play in sports nutrition are those that promote better focus and concentration; reduce feelings of distress, anxiety, and depression; and aid in sleep. Ingredients in the running include botanical extracts, but also proteins and lipid-based products.


Brainy Plants
Researchers are continually investigating botanical extracts for potential brain-health benefits and are beginning to incorporate them into formulas for athletes. One such extract, PLX from ingredient supplier Monteloeder (Spain), is derived from the leaves of the lemon verbena plant (Aloysia triphylla). In a 2015 study, it showed the ability to help athletes both sleep and recover.

The small, double-blind study1 commissioned by Monteloeder and conducted by researchers at the University Miguel Hernandez of Elche in Spain found that athletes consuming 1.2 g of the PLX-brand extract per day for 21 days reported reduced levels of perceived fatigue and anxiety, slept for longer each night, and reported less muscle pain overall than the placebo group. Overall, researchers concluded, the group taking the daily extract reported a 44% improvement in quality of sleep over the course of the study.

“This is a compelling proposition for any athlete,” says the company’s global head of marketing, Fernando Cartagena. “By improving sleep patterns and reducing anxiety and fatigue, PLX also enhances the mental recovery that is essential for sporting success.”

The ingredient comprises a combination of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components—including verbascoside, phenylpropanoids, and flavonoids (such as luteolin)—that “produce a powerful, synergistic effect,” Cartagena says. The ingredient can be worked into supplement formulations and functional beverages and shots, he adds.

Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ) is another supplier offering botanical-based brain-related ingredients for sports and other supplements. Anurag Pande, PhD, the company’s vice president of scientific affairs, points specifically to Sabinsa’s Curcumin C3 Complex derived from turmeric (Curcuma longa). “This patented extract is standardized to 95% curcuminoids, which have benefits for cognitive health” in addition to benefits for joint and muscle health, Pande says.

Beyond reducing inflammation in body tissues and “attenuating muscle wasting, or cachexia, in certain injury conditions,” Curcumin C3 Complex can potentially boost psychological wellness, Pande says. The C3 Complex has shown benefits related to major depressive disorder [MDD], Pande adds, referencing a study2 published in 2014. The authors of this small but arguably intriguing study concluded that a “curcuminoids–piperine combination is an effective addition to standard therapy for MDD and significantly improves the efficacy of treatment in alleviating depression symptoms.”

One finished-product brand marketing a curcumin-based supplement to athletes is Integrated Therapeutics. Its Theracurcumin HP supplement contains a “highly bioavailable, water-dispersible turmeric,” with the company’s director of clinical affairs, Corey Schuller, noting that curcumin “provides promising basic science evidence in both active and recovering athletes.”

A second Integrated Therapeutics cognitive supplement for athletes, Cortisol Manager, includes such botanicals as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), L-theanine, and magnolia. “Excessive cortisol production, as seen in many athletes, especially those who are overtraining, affects cognitive performance,” Schuller explains. The product is described as “a unique stress-hormone stabilizer that helps reduce tension and promote sleep, [which is] vital to recovery and energy restoration.”  Both of the company’s products bear the “NSF Certified for Sport” seal, which means that NSF screens them for more than 165 substances banned by most major athletic organizations, as well as for undeclared ingredients.

Drawing from the green chiretta plant native to Sri Lanka and India is HP Ingredients’ (Bradenton, FL) NeuroActin, a patent-pending and proprietary extract of Andrographis paniculata, standardized to andrographolide, 14-deoxyandrographolide, and neoandrographolide, says company CEO Annie Eng. Eng says the company launched NeuroActin for the brain-health category in response to two animal studies on green chiretta that “collectively demonstrated five mechanisms of action: canonical and non-canonical Wnt signaling, GSK-3β inhibition, tau hyperphosphorylation reduction, induction of postsynaptic proteins and synaptic function, and neurogenesis stimulation.”3,4 According to Eng, pending further study, these cognitive-health effects could potentially stretch into physical ones. “When a physically fit individual is also able to focus, he or she will likely be able to succeed in the fitness goal of the day, or the performance,” she says.

Rounding out the group of botanicals currently garnering attention for their potential for providing cognitive benefits within a sports-and-fitness context is the algae species Haematococcus pluvialis, specifically revered for its rich astaxanthin content. Joe Kuncewitch, national sales manager for astaxanthin supplier AstaReal Inc. (Burlington, NJ), explains, “The brain is prone to oxidation and inflammation, which can negatively impact the mental part of physical play. Our astaxanthin, from Haematococcus pluvialis, has been clinically studied for brain health and has been shown to exert several key benefits,” including mental quickness, multitasking, memory, and faster learning in senior subjects, he says. “And more seniors are engaged in physical fitness and sport than ever before.”


Protein for Relaxation and Sleep Support
During physical activity, mental focus and high cognitive performance are advantageous. During downtime and at night, when the body repairs itself and recovers, relaxation and sleep are key.

To that end, a patented hydrolysate of milk proteins developed by Pharmachem Laboratories Inc. (Kearny, NJ) contains a bioactive peptide with relaxing properties that regulates stress naturally, reports senior director of new product development Mitch Skop. This ingredient, called Lactium, has applications for athletes, Skop says, because “several research studies show it not only helps support healthy sleep, it also improves hand-eye coordination and reduces time to recharge.”


  1. E Roche et al., “Biochemical and psychological changes in university students performing aerobic exercise and consuming lemon verbena extracts,” Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research, vol. 13, no. 2 (2015)
  2. Panahi Y et al., “Investigation of the efficacy of adjunctive therapy with bioavailability-boosted curcuminoids in major depressive disorder,” Phytotherapy Research, vol. 29, no. 1 (January 2015): 17-21
  3. Tapia-Rojas C et al., “Andrographolide activates the canonical Wnt signalling pathway by a mechanism that implicates the non-ATP competitive inhibition of GSK-3β: autoregulation of GSK-3β in vivo,” The Biochemical Journal, vol. 466, no. 2 (March 1, 2015): 415-430
  4. Serrano FG et al., “Andrographolide reduces cognitive impairment in young and mature AβPPswe/PS-1 mice,” Molecular Neurodegeration. Published online December 18, 2014.
  5. Dela Peña IJ et al., “A tryptic hydrolysate from bovine milk αs1-casein enhances pentobarbital-induced sleep in mice via the GABAA receptor,” Behavioural Brain Research, vol. 313 (July 2016): 184–190
  6. Bellar D et al., “The effect of 6 days of alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine on isometric strength,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Published online November 17, 2015.