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Brain Ergogenics: What Are They, And Do They Work?

  • By Shawn Talbott, Ph.D
  • Published Aug. 29, 2013
  • Updated Aug. 29, 2013 at 8:45 PM UTC
Coffee is the most commonly used brain ergogenic because of the benefits caffeine provides. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

And could they be the next big thing in endurance sports?

Endurance exercise makes us tired — that’s not exactly a newsflash — but methods to “reduce fatigue” or “prolong endurance” have become the Holy Grail of sports nutrition.

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen numerous “improve endurance” products in the form of energy bars, carbohydrate beverages, and related that provide calories to help maintain glucose, reduce lactic acid accumulation, and restore glycogen levels and thus help to delay “peripheral” fatigue (caused when your muscles fatigue).

However, a new category of endurance nutrition products is entering the market intended to improve “mental energy” and help to delay “central fatigue” (which occurs when the brain basically says, “No more, we’re done”). These new types of products can be broadly grouped into a category that we refer to as “Brain Ergogenics” — to suggest an overall effect of enhancing the brain’s capacity for high-performance work output.

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Brain Ergogenics has the potential to be the “next big thing” in endurance performance. We have already gotten pretty close to optimizing the approach to extending endurance through “peripheral” mechanisms, which includes factors occurring outside the brain, in the muscles, blood vessels, etc — such as glycogen levels, oxygen delivery, maintenance of blood glucose, electrolytes for hydration and cramping. However, we have only scratched the surface in terms of extending endurance through “central” mechanisms (brain-centered).

One way to think about obstacles to endurance performance is that you “stop” (or slow down) moving forward due to either peripheral fatigue (you bonk or hit the wall or succumb to the “burn” of lactate accumulation) or due to central fatigue (your brain says “enough”) — and both factors can be “pushed back” in various ways to enable us to keep going.

There are a wide range of nutrients that can delay central fatigue — ranging from caffeine (the most commonly used brain ergogenic) to branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs including valine, leucine, isoleucine) and other amino acids (like taurine/tyrosine/theanine), to flavonoids like quercetin/reseveratrol/catechins (which have both peripheral effects on blood flow and also central effects on brain neurotransmitters), and even more “exotic” compounds such as choline, fatty acids, and others. Dietary supplements with well-described peripheral endurance benefits, such as Eurycoma (which balances cortisol/testosterone) or Cordyceps (which improves oxygen efficiency) or Ginseng (which controls blood glucose) may also have central brain effects encouraging an endurance athlete to keep going for awhile longer.

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Certainly, drugs such as caffeine or Adderall (for ADHD) or Provigil (for daytime sleepiness) can stimulate the brain to “wake up” or “keep going” and are effective enough for Americans to spend several billion dollars annually. Nobody is saying that endurance athletes should turn to pharmacological agents to gain any performance edge in our recreational pursuits, but there is undoubtedly a market for these types of products as subset of the general endurance/sports nutrition category. People will always be looking for that “extra gear” and targeting the central nervous system is likely to be the next frontier.

Some of my own research studies for a range of dietary supplement companies, have looked at the effects of BCAAs, theanine, catechins, Cordyceps, eurycoma, etc. on psychological parameters such as “Vigor” (mental/physical energy levels) in endurance athletes. We’ve been able to show that athletes “feel better” (using mood state surveys) — but we have not always been able to show a direct advantage for performance outcomes (power output, time to exhaustion, perceived exertion, etc) — which suggests that it might be difficult to completely harness or control an organ as intricate and complex as the human brain.

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About the Author

Shawn Talbott is an avid endurance athlete (multiple-Ironman and ultramarathon finisher) and scientist (PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry and MS in Exercise Science) in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at www.ShawnTalbott.com

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