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Can Brain Fuel Power a Workout?

Mark Gilbert, BSc

Today’s supplement formulas aimed at boosting brain power can not only help your training but also fight free radicals and overtraining, and may even help you relax

The supplement industry is getting “smarter” all the time. Don’t get me wrong—it was never stupid, but in the early days, muscle and strength building were seen as purely physical phenomena. Even stimulants were seen as mostly having effects on muscle, respiratory, and cardiovascular functions. The mental and neural pathways weren’t really considered as targets for supplements. Since then, supplement manufacturers have made a few attempts to launch “nootropic” or “cognitive” products designed to facilitate quicker, clearer mental functions—basically, a hack to make your brain work better! Recently, this movement has switched into a higher gear, focusing on the brain and central nervous system.

The New Frontier

Let’s face it: Most of us could use clearer, more focused mental energy. The added bonus is that this not only provides advantages to students, professionals, and gamers, for example, but also undoubtedly improves exercise performance. Any decent coach can tell you that a muscle contraction (at least a voluntary contraction) starts with a signal from the brain that travels through the nervous system, which triggers a motor neuron to stimulate a muscle fibre. Certainly, anything that can make this process more efficient or allow you to stimulate moreneurons will result in a more powerful muscle contraction, thus resulting in improved speed and/or force. Of course, this will result in better performance in the gym. Just as importantly, it may serve to better “train” the nervous system to instigate contractions and to protect the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is the one that gets affected when training load gets too high, too often, resulting in “overreaching” and, in extreme circumstances, “overtraining.” Both of these conditions can result in stagnation and reduced gym performance and can potentially take months or even longer to resolve.

Interestingly, a few of the same ingredients that have been used in pre-workout formulas, stimulants, and other supplements can deliver some of these benefits. For instance, huperzine A affects neural pathways in the brain, and agmatine can improve cerebral (brain) blood flow. Each of these effects can make the brain work more efficiently. A few such products hitting the market also protect grey matter. Remember, the brain is composed of about 60 percent fat. Also, pound for pound, the brain uses up more energy than any other organ. All of this activity that requires energy means a great deal of oxidation is taking place, and while oxidation is an essential process in all organs to create energy, it also has consequences: Oxidation of fat produces free radicals, which are well-known to damage tissue. Ingredients such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and quercetin have been shown to effectively moderate free-radical levels.

Some products in this category are further formulated to reduce stress and anxiety. After all, clear thinking and making good decisions are difficult in a stressed state. Ingredients such as L-theanine, agmatine, and vitamin C are often present in this product category, and they’ve all been shown in research to reduce anxiety and stress responses.

So whether you want sharper thinking, better performance in the gym, protection against excess oxidation, better ability to resist training overload, or just a bit less stress, so-called brain/neuro cocktail products may be a good choice.