Mental Performance (Brain Ergogenics)

Best Future YouHarnessing Your Body’s Biochemistry to Achieve Balance in Body, Mind, and Spirit

My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.

Chapter 8 – Perform Your Best

Phase 1 – Mental Performance (brain ergogenics)

In some of the work I’ve done over the years with elite-level athletes in a variety of sports – including many professional athletes and participants in the Summer and Winter Olympic Games – a common theme is that the athletes standing on the podium not only are the athletes with the highest states of physical performance but also are the athletes with the highest states of mental performance. Their physical and mental performances can in turn be traced down to the biochemical or cellular level – where we see that the athletes on the podium were effective in reducing cellular stress, while those off the podium typically succumb to one or more problems associated with excessive cellular stress (injury, illness, fatigue, inattention, etc), ultimately leading to poor performance.

The athletes who miss the podium (or even miss qualifying for big events, such as the Olympic Games) are often those whose cellular biochemistry is “unbalanced” and whose cellular stress spiked at the wrong time—leaving them fatigued, unfocused, injured, or sick and allowing a “balanced” athlete to surpass them.

Brain Ergogenics – the Emerging Science of Mental Performance

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, carb 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 are 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.

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, etc. 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.

Certainly, dangerous and addictive stimulant drugs such as 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. Although abuse of ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are a big trend on college campuses (as “study drugs”) and in high-pressure jobs (such as Wall Street), 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.

Luckily, we have a wide range of non-drug, safe and natural nutrients that can delay central fatigue, such as:

  • Caffeine (the most commonly used brain ergogenic)
  • Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs including valine, leucine, isoleucine)
  • Other amino acids (like taurine/tyrosine/theanine)
  • Flavonoids like quercetin/catechins/OPCs (which have both peripheral effects on blood flow and also central effects on brain neurotransmitters
  • American ephedra, which contains unique neuro-active amino acids that significantly increase positive mood state while reducing negative mood state (meaning that you feel great and have high stress resilience)
  • Adaptogens such as:
    • Eurycoma (which balances cortisol/testosterone);
    • Cordyceps (which improves oxygen efficiency);
    • Ginseng (which controls blood glucose)
    • – all may also have central brain effects encouraging an endurance athlete to keep going for awhile longer.

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) – and often that feeling better translates into a direct advantage for athletic performance outcomes (power output, time to exhaustion, perceived exertion, etc).

Thanks for reading – be sure to tune in for the next installment about “Phase 2 – Gut Health (including immune system function)”

Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author
801-915-1170 (mobile)


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)
Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)
The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
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