When many people think of supplements to increase their focus, energy, or performance, they usually think about a pre-workout product that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and usually has high doses of caffeine. There is nothing wrong with a little caffeine, but numerous pre-workout supplements on the market contain as much caffeine as five cups of coffee. Pre-workout supplements have never been more popular. They provide increased energy and endurance for one’s workout; however, there are several issues to consider when choosing the nutrients for this purpose. These products can put a heavy burden on the adrenal glands, increasing the stress response, which can ultimately lead to fatigue. They can also cause other negative side effects, such as sleep disturbances, irritability, anxiousness, and they can negatively impact the appetite.

In addition, many of these products also contain food dyes and artificial sweeteners, with most powders being sweetened with sucralose. While food manufacturing companies and global health authorities have deemed sucralose safe for consumption, most health care providers know that this is not the case.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, sucralose is a biologically active compound that decreases the number and balance of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. It causes epithelial scarring, the depletion of goblet cells and glandular disorganisation in the colon, and alters insulin, blood glucose, and glucagon like peptide 1 (GLP-1) levels (1).

I know the importance of nutrients for supporting focus, energy, and endurance. The challenge is finding good, health-promoting products that do not have excessive amounts of caffeine, while also being free of artificial sweeteners and food dyes. Are there other nutrients one can use that will serve this purpose, but also have long term benefits on overall health without these negative side effects?

Nootropics have become increasing popular for improving memory and preventing age-related memory decline. These are nutrients that improve mental function, working memory, and motivation. Medically, nootropics are commonly used to help stroke victims (2), relieve depression (3), and to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (4). Recently, with their ability to enhance memory, focus, and attention, these supplements have found a niche amongst students and business executives. There has been a lot of research demonstrating the benefits of nootropics on brain health, but what about athletic performance?

I started weight training 19 years ago and have been a competitive powerlifter for the past six years. When it comes to performance, we have to consider an athlete’s psychological stability during training and competition, which includes the condition of their nervous system and their ability to perform under stressful conditions. Mental performance and physical performance are intimately connected, whether it may be via reaction time, mood or focus. All of these cognitive processes should be optimal if an athlete wants to perform at their best. Therefore, nootropics can be used to increase performance significantly in the gym as a pre-workout supplement and also to support brain health. Nootropics stimulate the brain and not the adrenal glands. As a result, these brain nutrients provide energy, drive, and mental focus without negative side effects and they provide long term benefits for overall health.

These are some nootropics that I have personally found to be effective and safe to take prior to training:

Glycerophosphocholine (GPC) is a naturally occurring choline intermediary that is formed when the body breaks down cell membranes for choline. It is used for age-related brain conditions and brain recovery from stroke or trauma. GPC is a highly bio-available form of choline that crosses the blood brain barrier and raises choline levels (5). Acetylcholine is a cognitive neurotransmitter, as well as a neuromodulator of muscular functions, which also improves muscle control and balance. Not only does it help with learning and memory processes, but also with muscle movement, coordination and balance. Higher levels of acetylcholine will also ead to increased focus, which is essential during training. Learning, memory, focus, and reaction time are all interconnected. Raising neurotransmitter levels can enhance the brain’s ability to communicate more efficiently. Nootropics may increase working memory and as a result, improve reaction times. In addition, many of the positive adaptations resulting from resistance exercise training, such as increased muscle mass and strength and decreased fat mass, are thought to be mediated partially by exercise induced increases in growth hormone (6). GPC has also been demonstrated to increase growth hormone levels. In one study, a single 1000mg dose of GPC induced an acute increase of plasma choline levels. Plasma growth hormone levels were increased by about 290 per cent 60 minutes after the oral administration of GPC. In comparison, a single session of moderate intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to increase growth hormone secretion by 210 per cent after exercise (7). In another study, a single 600mg dose of GPC taken 90 minutes prior to resistance exercise significantly increased post-exercise serum growth hormone. In addition, peak bench press force was increased by 14 per cent (6). Typical therapeutic dosing is 600mg to 1200mg, taken once to twice daily. I have personally found that 1200mg of GPC taken 45 min prior to training has worked best for me.

Acetyl l-carnitine is one of the most researched brain nutrients. It has been shown to quickly enhance mental focus and energy. It has a similar structure to acetylcholine, and can therefore stimulate acetylcholine receptors in the brain. The acetyl group allows it to cross the blood brain barrier, which cannot be said about l-carnitine. Acetyl l-carnitine will support the brain as effectively as everything else that l-carnitine can do. Carnitine is abundant in animal muscle tissue, including red meats. Its main function is to transport fatty acids across the mitochondrial membrane for fatty acid oxidation. Skeletal and cardiac tissues rely heavily on fatty acid oxidation and have high concentrations of carnitine (8). The supplementation of carnitine has been studied in many scientific areas, including metabolism, cardiovascular disease, and sports enhancement (9). L-carnitine has been shown to improve exercise performance by enhancing the delivery of fat fuel to the muscles. It has also been shown to increase the anaerobic threshold, delaying the event where the muscles feel a ‘burn’ from lactic acid (10). Most people associate acetyl l-carnitine with the prevention of age-related memory decline and the slowing of Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is also very effective for increasing mental focus and energy when taken pre-workout. Acetyl l-carnitine increases dopamine levels, which has the effect of enhancing focus and motivation. Most individuals dose acetyl l-carnitine between 500mg and 3000mg per day, depending on the application. This is one of those nutrients where you really feel an increase in focus and energy within about 15 to 20 minutes of taking it, which is best achieved by taking 1500mg 30 minutes prior to training. This also happens to be the dosage at which the reversal of many of the signs of brain ageing occurs (11). In addition, there are no recognised side effects, only long term benefits to overall brain health. There was also a study published in Cell Metabolism last year, specifically related to exercise, that demonstrated that acetyl l-carnitine plays an important role in modulating muscle energy during muscle contraction, as well as decreasing muscle fatigue and reducing exercise intolerance (12).

Acetyl l-tyrosine is the acetylated derivative of l-tyrosine. Tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid, synthesised in the body from the essential amino acid phenylalanine. Tyrosine is the precursor amino acid from which the body makes thyroid hormones and dopamine, which is then converted to noradrenaline and then to adrenaline. Inadequate production of these hormones and catecholamines can compromise physical performance. These catecholamines regulate the body’s stress response and are involved in basic nervous system activities such as movement, memory, attention, desire, motivation, ‘fight or flight’ response, heart rate, and energy production (13). Acetylation helps to increase the stability and solubility of tyrosine. This makes tyrosine more bioavailable and efficient and as a result, is a superior choice for increasing the body’s levels of tyrosine. It is essential for numerous functions such as cognitive performance (14), improving stamina for exercise (15), and preventing excessive rises in cortisol levels (16). Acetyl l-tyrosine can support optimal sports performance for the body and the brain by alleviating stress and stimulating the brain, as well as improving workout intensity, while preventing overtraining. This is essential for competitive athletes who have to perform at a high level. Tyrosine is a stimulating amino acid supplement that can be a good alternative to caffeine. It is best taken on an empty stomach. 

Adenosine 5’-triphosphate (ATP) Orally delivered ATP may reduce muscle fatigue and enable a higher force output during repeated high-intensity bouts of exercise. ATP is an energy carrying molecule used in our cells. Its role as the primary intracellular energy source for body tissues is well established (16). Extracellularly, ATP is just as important. Blood levels of ATP are responsible for controlling muscle excitability, vasodilation, and anabolic signalling. Calcium is the main nutrient responsible for muscle contraction. There are two ways in which ATP influences muscle strength and power. Firstly, extracellular levels of ATP increase calcium levels and glucose within the cells. Secondly, when intracellular calcium levels increase, there is also an increase in the number of muscle filaments binding and the velocity at which these muscle filaments slide to create a contraction (17). Numerous studies have demonstrated ATP’s ability to increase strength and power, support recovery, and reduce fatigue. Specifically, extracellular ATP directly promotes the increased synthesis and release of nitric oxide (NO) and prostacyclin (PGl2) within skeletal muscle and therefore directly affects tissue vasodilation and blood flow (18). Research suggests that oral supplementation with ATP, in combination with high intensity resistance training, increases muscle mass, strength, and power. In addition, it has the ability to speed up recovery, which may prevent typical declines in performance and provide athletes with a novel method to promote positive training adaptations (19). Research from the University of Tampa demonstrated ATP’s effect on increasing vasodilation and blood flow post-exercise. In this study, twelve college-aged, resistance trained males were randomly divided into ATP and no-ATP groups. 400 milligrams of ATP or placebo was taken daily for twelve weeks 30 minutes prior to weight training. At weeks 1, 8, and 12, there were significant increases in blood flow at zero and three minutes post-exercise with ATP supplementation. This research demonstrates that oral ATP can increase blood flow during exercise recovery (20). In another study, 400mg ATP taken daily for 15 days reduced muscle fatigue while improving muscle low peak torque through successive sets of exercise. These effects indicate an improvement in overall training stimulus, which may have been brought about by more rapid repolarization and stronger action potentials later within sets (21). Research has demonstrated that 400mg of ATP taken daily on an empty stomach 30 to 60 minutes prior to training to be most effective for increasing power, strength, and vasodilation. Conclusions There is no question that intense and prolonged training puts a significant stress on the central nervous system. It makes sense that using nutrients that optimise brain function are beneficial to the performance of an athlete. Choosing the right supplements can have a significant impact on what you are able to get out of your workouts. However, simply looking at the performance oriented pre-workout supplements, that contain stimulants, dyes and unhealthy sweeteners, can be discouraging. The list presented in this article represents safe and beneficial nutrients that support sports performance and can be extremely helpful for focus, power, and mental energy in athletes. These work great synergistically along with other popular sports performance nutrients such as beta-alanine, citrulline, creatine, and a branched-chain amino acids and EAA blend.

References 

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  7. Kawamura T et al (2012). Glycerophosphocholine enhances growth hormone secretion and fat oxidation in young adults. Nutrition Journal. 28(11-12):1122-1126. 
  8. RS Lord and JA Bralley (2008). Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine. 2nd Edition. Metametrix Institute. 
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  11. Guarnaschelli C et al (1988). Pathological brain ageing: evaluation of the efficacy of a pharmacological aid. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 14:715-718. 
  12. Seiler S et al (2015). Carnitine acetyltransferase mitigates metabolic inertia and muscle fatigue during exercise. Cell Metabolism. 22(1):65-76. 
  13. Guarnaschelli C et al (1988). Pathological brain ageing: evaluation of the efficacy of a pharmacological aid. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 14:715-718. 
  14. Deijen JB et al (1999). Tyrosine improves cognitive performance and reduces blood pressure in cadets after one week of a combat training course. Brain Res Bull. 48(2):203-209. 15. Tumilty L et al (2011). Oral tyrosine supplementation improves exercise capacity in the heat. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111(12):2941-2950. 
  15. Reinstein DK et al (1985). Dietary tyrosine suppresses the rise in plasma corticosterone following acute stress in rats. Life Sci. 37(23):2157-2163. 
  16. Kichenin K et al (2000). Cardiovascular and pulmonary response to oral administration of ATP in rabbits. J Appl Physiol. 88:1962-1968. 
  17. Nyberg M et al (2010). Interstitial and plasma adenosine stimulate nitric oxide and prostacyclin formation in human skeletal muscle. Hypertension. 56(6):1102–1108. 
  18. Wilson J et al (2013). Effects of oral adenosine-5′- triphosphate supplementation on athletic performance, skeletal muscle hypertrophy and recovery in resistance trained men. Nutrition & Metabolism. 10:57. 
  19. Lowery RP et al (2013). Oral ATP administration improves blood flow responses to exercise in both animal and human training models. Presented at 10th Annual ISSN conference. Colorado Springs, CO. June 2013. 
  20. Rathmacher J et al (2012). Adenosine-5’- triphosphate (ATP) supplementation improves low peak muscle torque and torque fatigue during repeated high intensity exercise sets. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 9:48.

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