Brain-Health Nootropic Supplements Growing in Sports Nutrition

April 4, 2018

Athletes and visitors to the Ted Stevens Sport Services Center at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs will find a state-of-the-art sports-medicine assessment facility, a team of world-class strength and conditioning coaches—even a high-altitude training center and teaching kitchen where Olympians can learn how to feed for peak performance.

But they’ll also find, located appropriately in the center’s Sport Sciences wing, a psychophysiology training space designed to monitor athletes’ brain and body responses while resting and under competitive simulation. For, as U.S. Olympic Committee sport psychologist and psychophysiologist Lindsay Thornton, points out, “Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental or emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and, conversely, every change in the mental or emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”

In other words, brain and body are one. And, as Karen Hecht, PhD, scientific affairs manager, AstaReal Inc. (Burlington, NJ), notes, the very presence of the psychophysiology space at the OTC “shows that no less an august body than the U.S. Olympic Committee has dedicated a facility and program to studying how mental fitness impacts physical fitness and athletic achievement.”

Sports nutrition products are increasingly dedicating space in their formulations for ingredients—called nootropics—that link the mental and the physical, too, boosting cognitive function in such a way that athletic performance also improves. And the more we learn about the relationship between brain and body, the more exciting the prospects for these ingredients seem.

Nascent Category
Though it would be difficult to find precise data on the strength of nootropic sports performance products—that’s how nascent the category is— “the number of cognitive-support supplements aimed toward athletes and fitness enthusiasts certainly seems to be growing, with abundant opportunities,” Hecht says.

Perhaps that’s because the convergence of several trends points the category toward success. “First,” says Elyse N. Lovett, MBA, MS, marketing manager, Kyowa Hakko U.S.A. Inc. (New York City), “good science on ingredients showing the correlations between sports and brain health has started to emerge. Second, consumers have started demanding products with brain health aspects to get that competitive edge. And third, manufacturers need to differentiate themselves in the crowded sports nutrition supplement space.”

Evolving Spaces
As the audience for sports nutrition has expanded beyond its core focus on muscle mass and competition, the category has drawn what Kim Colletti, MBA, global cognition product manager, Kemin Human Nutrition and Health (Des Moines, IA), calls “active-lifestyle users, including key groups like on-the-go business professionals, working mothers, and outdoor enthusiasts.” This broader base, she says, “is looking for a wide range of benefits from sports products, including improvements in mental and physical performance.”

It is worth noting that this connection is hardly a new development. “Stimulants and other ingredients with cognitive benefits have been used in sports nutrition for many years,” Colletti points out. “The traditional sports-nutrition consumer welcomed the inclusion of nootropics long before they were even termed as such.” But, she says, “Now the expansion of the category to the active-lifestyle consumer has resulted in the emergence of nootropics as a category within the sports-nutrition market.”

Meanwhile, the nootropics field has been going through its own evolution. “For the last 20 years, ‘cognitive function’ products were more or less focused on aging baby boomers, tied to the hopes that they could help slow or prevent cognitive decline,” observes James Komorowski, MS, CNS, chief science officer, Nutrition 21 LLC (Purchase, NY). “Today’s nootropics are more closely targeted at Millennials, as the demographic is on a constant search to increase its number of productive hours in a day, whether for work, school, sports, or just daily life.”

Get Your Game On
And to the extent that Millennials are the central spectators of and participants in the  world of eSports, or competitive video gaming, they deserve top billing for encouraging nootropic sports nutrition’s growth.

“Without question,” says Tim Ziegenfuss, PhD, CSCS, FISSN, CEO, Center for Applied Health Sciences (Stow, OH), “the gamer market has the biggest potential and most relevance” for driving nootropics’ future in sports formulations. The global audience for competitive gaming approaches 140 million, he notes, and elite eSports “athletes” now earn college scholarships.

For these high-stakes competitors, “optimizing brain ‘flow’ during a game of Call of Duty might make the difference between getting recruited by a top team like Optic Gaming or getting trounced by a seven-year-old with cheat codes,” Ziegenfuss says. “I mean, have you seen the number of buttons and joysticks some of these controllers have nowadays? And don’t even get me started on the virtual reality headsets.”

Natural Inclusions
Of course, Millennials staring at video screens are hardly the only targets for nootropic formulations. All sports “require tremendous focus and intense concentration,” Hecht says. “Team sports and sports such as tennis often require the player to instantly assess the situation and immediately anticipate what will happen next and how to react to win. And singular performance sports such as gymnastics and golf also require the ability to focus intently.”

Do nootropics help them do all that? They do, says Komorowski. “A few of the major benefits associated with nootropic supplements are enhanced mental acuity, faster processing times, and improved focus. As any athlete will tell you, focus is what helps push them through their last trying sets of a workout or the final minutes of a long game.” Additionally, athletes appreciate that focus and mental acuity help them avoid injury. “More efficient multitasking also benefits performance by helping athletes save energy,” Komorowski adds.

Add their purported effects on mood, motivation, cognitive flexibility, and anxiety and nootropics are naturals for inclusion in sports formulations. “Think of it this way,” says Komorowski: “Athletes are already consuming sports nutrition pre-workout to pump their energy levels and improve performance during exercise, as well as post-workout supplements to support muscle growth and recovery. So, it’s a logical progression that they’d look to a nootropic supplement to help improve their overall performance, which really does stem from their ability to focus and think clearly during workouts.”

All About Timing
Some might wonder, though, if anything sets a sports nootropic apart from ingredients that mainstream consumers have tapped for mental sharpening. And, Hector Lopez, MD, CSCS, FAAPMR, FISSN, CEO and cofounder, Supplement Safety Solutions (Bedford, MA), and CMO, Center for Applied Health Sciences, says the main difference boils down to timing, onset of action, and degree of impact.

“Orthodox” nootropics support brain health on a more chronic basis, Lopez explains, “impacting various types of memory and executive function over extended periods by supporting the structural health of neurons, bioenergetics, and modulating neuro-inflammatory pathways.” Examples run from marine long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, phosphatidylserine, and curcumin to anthocyanins and flavanoids, phytocannabinoids like CBD—even creatine.

A nootropic intended to heighten physical performance, by contrast, works acutely—“within one to three hours,” Lopez says—on the neurochemical bases of reaction time, focus, perceived energy, cognitive flexibility, and processing speed. Think caffeine, citicoline, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine (alpha-GPC).

Inner Workings
Understanding just how sports-oriented nootropics alter the brain’s neurochemistry continues to occupy scientists. But, says Mark J.S. Miller, PhD, MBA, FACN, CNS, principal, Kaiviti Consulting LLC (Dallas), the mechanisms of action seem to follow certain themes.

Most common is a strong antioxidant action. “This is important,” Miller says, “because the vascular endothelial production of nitric oxide is subject to oxidative degradation, and this can compromise local blood flow.” By neutralizing the free radicals that degrade nitric oxide, nootropics improve vasodilation, increase blood flow, and let nutrients travel to the brain and muscle cells that need them. “This is part of the explanation for the acute benefits of astaxanthin and other carotenoids, grapeseed extract, and N-acetyl cysteine,” Miller says.

Similarly, dietary nitrate helps maintain optimal blood flow to the brain and muscles because a bacterial enzyme in saliva converts it to nitrite, which can then be converted on demand to nitric oxide. “So, supplementation with nitrate—usually via beets or spinach—is associated with improved aerobic and anaerobic performance, and improved mental functions,” Miller says.

Some supplements actually replenish neurotransmitters that are “consumed” during the mind–muscle communications that underlie sports and exercise, Miller continues. And not surprisingly, scientists are eyeing the microbiome for clues as to how it may affect cognitive and physical performance. “Research in this area, especially with gut–brain interactions achieving increasing clarity, is progressing at a frenzy,” Miller says. “Here we can link the old knowledge of diet to sports performance with a new twist—our microbial friends that make up the community that we call ‘us.’”

  1. Nagamatsu LS et al., “Physical activity improves verbal and spatial memory in older adults with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Aging Research. Published online February 24, 2013.
  2. Kalman D et al., “Randomized prospective double-blind studies to evaluate the cognitive effects of inositol-stabilized arginine silicate in healthy physically active adults,” Nutrients, vol. 8, no. 11 (November 2016)
  3. Falcone P et al., “Chronic supplementation with a natural nootropic spearmint extract improves active reaction performance in young healthy individuals. Study presented at the Proceedings of the 14th Annual International Society of Sports Nutrition conference (June 2017).
  4. Yurgelun-Todd D et al., “The effect of citicoline supplementation on motor speed and attention in adolescent males,” Journal of Attention Disorders. Published online July 15, 2015.
  5. Taylor L et al., “Safety of TeaCrine, a non-habituating, naturally-occurring purine alkaloid over eight weeks of continuous use,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Published online January 13, 2016.
  6. Hongo N et al., “Randomized controlled trial of the anti-fatigue effects of astaxanthin on mental and physical loads simulating daily life,” Journal of Clinical Therapeutics & Medicines, vol. 32, no. 7 (2016): 277-291