Brain Health and Sports Nutrition Team Up in Dietary Supplements

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 19 No. 9
Volume 19
Issue 9

Botanical extracts, proteins, and lipid-based products are all on deck as brain-wellness ingredients take on sports nutrition.

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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.”


In the newest of these studies5, performed on mice and published in Behavioural Brain Research, Lactium was shown to facilitate and promote sleep "with no or minimal sedative properties," Skop reports. “Lactium naturally enhances sleep without the groggy side effects that can be attributed to drugs, thereby positioning Lactium as an ideal sleep aid for natural products marketers,” he says, particularly those whose reach extends into athletic supplements.


Looking to Lipids
Building on phosphatidylserine’s (PS) association with cognitive benefits, lipids-based ingredients supplier Enzymotec offers EnzySport, a formulation for increased stamina and faster recovery based on the supplier’s proprietary Sharp PS soy-based ingredient, which is “already well established in the cognitive-health category,” says president and CEO Ariel Katz. The ingredient is marketed as potentially “improving focus and decision making, as well as the perception of improved general well-being,” which are “of utmost performance for those dealing with sports,” adds Avissara.

Avissara points to all of Enzymotec’s PS products, including “a novel grade" combined with omega-3, as “opening opportunities in a wide range of applications and target markets,” including sports supplements.

And as for Chemi Nutra, the company says this about AlphaSize on its website: “AlphaSize A-GPC has interesting utility in ‘mind-to-muscle’ sports nutrition formulations, where it acts to optimize muscular power output, sharpen agility, and also delay mental fatigue. This is due to its action involving motor-unit activation of muscle fibers and subsequent muscle contraction, as well as due to its mental-sharpness benefits.”

As a brain-health ingredient, A-GPC is an important dietary source of choline, one of the key neurotransmitters for brain and memory function. Last year, Chemi Nutra announced a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study6 published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that found that 600 mg of AlphaSize daily for six days improved lower-body muscle strength in subjects (13 college-aged males).

The subjects underwent lower- and upper-body strength tests. Researchers found that the subjects’ strength improved significantly during lower-body testing. (In the upper-body test, the improvement in strength was not statistically significant, which the researchers said may be due to a high variability of upper-body strength among the subjects that may have limited statistical power.)

The effects on lower-body strength are promising, the researchers wrote. “The results of the study suggest that A-GPC is effective at increasing lower-body force production after six days of supplementation. Given that, in many sports, it is understood that a very small change in performance, often times less than 2%, can significantly affect outcomes, it is important to note that the six days of A-GPC resulted in greater than a 3% increase in lower-body isometric strength.”

The scientists posited that A-GPC’s effects on strength may be due to increasing bioavailable choline. A-GPC is converted to phosphatidylcholine, a precursor to choline, and choline in turn is converted to acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter. According to Chemi Nutra, “Exhaustive and repeated exercise can compromise motor neuron activity at the neuromuscular junction, and it is believed that motor neurons cannot manufacture and release acetylcholine fast enough to maintain transmission of the action potential from the motor neurons to the muscles.” By boosting acetylcholine synthesis, a supplement like A-GPC may help counter the “signaling fatigue” that often contributes to muscular fatigue and loss of strength, as well as muscle performance, because acetylcholine helps control speed of muscle contraction.

This is the first test to study the effects of A-GPC directly on isometric strength. The researchers suggested that further studies, including in vitro testing, be done to “demonstrate that A-GPC has the potential to augment neurotransmitter levels in motor neurons.”

Chemi Nutra funded the study. “Chemi Nutra continues to explore how its branded, patented, AlphaSize alpha-glyceryl phosphoryl choline (A-GPC) can improve exercise performance, by focusing on its powerful role in facilitating explosive power output, speeding up reaction time, improving jumping ability, improving eye-hand coordination, and, of course, improving all cognitive measures-focus, memory, learning, and recall,” said Scott Hagerman, president of Chemi Nutra, in a press release.


Finding Opportunity at the Crossroads of Physical and Cognitive Wellness
The United States is seeing an aging but active population combined with growing public interest in both mental wellness and physical fitness. It is also seeing a sports-nutrition industry that has grown 67% in the past five years (from roughly $4.4 billion to $7.4 billion, according to analysis from Euromonitor). The time seems right for marketing cognitive-health ingredients to the athletic- and fitness-supplements industry, and for highlighting the mental elements of exercise and athletic performance to supplement consumers.

Brands that can successfully find and capitalize on the overlap between brain health, physical fitness, and athletic performance will perhaps be best positioned to benefit from current trends.  


Also read:

2016 Sports Nutrition Ingredient Trends

Smart Strategies for Marketing Brain-Health Products

Latest Sports-Nutrition Product Trends



  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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
  • Serrano FG et al., “Andrographolide reduces cognitive impairment in young and mature AβPPswe/PS-1 mice,” Molecular Neurodegeration. Published online December 18, 2014.
  • 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
  • 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.
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