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Sports Nutrition

Focal Point

Ask any gym rat what he or she expects to feel 15 to 30 minutes after taking a preworkout supplement and the answer will be something along the lines of: Kaboom! In fact, one of the reasons preworkout supplements are loaded with stimulants is because you can feel them working. But often, the stimulant ingredients are not the most critical elements in the tub. Sure, they give you an immediate sense of invincibility, but some of the other ingredients have more impact. 

Over the next three issues, we’ll go behind the labels of some of today’s best preworkout powders to show you that their success extends far beyond stimulants. In this issue, we start by honing in on the ingredients that support focus. Being able to muster a high level of focus is a fundamental element of workout intensity, and maintaining that focus and intensity from workout to workout is the key to superior gains in strength and muscularity. Here are the critical details about six of the focus-boosting ingredients found in many preworkout formulas. 

What is it? A plant that grows in cold climates, Rhodiola is used to boost energy and treat fatigue, enhance physical and mental performance, stimulate the nervous system and fight depression.

How does it increase focus?Rhodiola is a potent herbal adaptogen, which, simply put, means it increases the body’s ability to handle stress and fatigue by maintaining hormonal homeostasis. Adaptogens generally increase energy and focus by increasing brain neurotransmitter concentration. Biochemically, Rhodiola rosea inhibits enzymes called monoamine oxidases, which break down brain neurotransmitters like serotonin, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, all of which are involved with focus. Thus, taking Rhodiola promotes an increase in the level of these neurotransmitters, and you feel an increase in focus and attention. 

Dosing: Because Rhodiola inhibits monoamine oxidases, it may interact with certain prescription drugs. The average dose should be between 200 milligrams and 400 milligrams per day of a product that is standardized to contain the active rosavins and salidrosides in a 3:1 ratio. 

What is it? Tyrosine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is the precursor to the production of many neurotransmitters (i.e., norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine).

How does it increase focus? Norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine are intimately involved in controlling motivation, mood, focus and anxiety. They also regulate lipolysis (fat burning) and weight loss, but exercise and stress from caloric restriction (while dieting) can severely impact their levels. It’s been postulated, though, that in those cases, it’s really tyrosine levels that are the problem — that the body doesn’t have enough tyrosine to make more of those critical neurotransmitters. In fact, several studies have shown that taking a tyrosine supplement can combat the adverse effects of severe stress, greatly improving measures of mental and physical performance, reaction time, mood and fatigue. For example, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that subjects who supplemented with tyrosine for a four-week period showed significant improvements in focus and alertness after exhaustive exercise, compared to the placebo.

Dosing: Take 1 to 3 grams 30 minutes before training.

What is it? Huperzine A is a plant extract derived from Huperzia serrata, which is a species of fir club moss that is found in Southeast Asia and India. 

How does it increase focus? Huperzine A inhibits enzymes that break down acetylcholine (a very important neuromodulator involved in wakefulness, attention and focus) in the brain. When you take huperzine A, less acetylcholine is broken down, so more stays around to stimulate the brain. Several studies have shown that taking huperzine A results in increases in memory and focus. 

Dosing: Take 50 micrograms of huperzine A three times per day. Make sure to take one dose 30 to 60 minutes before training.

What is it? DMAE (also sometimes known as deanol bitartrate) is a biochemical precursor to acetylcholine in the brain. Do not confuse it with the stimulant DMAA because DMAE is a completely different non-stimulant compound. 

How does it increase focus? DMAE is best known scientifically for its positive effects on focus and alertness. Research has shown that supplemental DMAE optimizes brain acetylcholine levels to resolve attention deficits and age-related memory loss. Other research also has shown that DMAE acts as a potent antioxidant, scavenging specific free radicals associated with impairments in focus and attention. 

Dosing: Take 100 to 200 milligrams two to three times daily, with one dose 30 minutes before training.

What is it? An extract from the seeds of the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor), vinpocetine enhances memory and focus. 

How does it increase focus? Vinpocetine increases blood flow to the brain, thus improving focus, concentration and alertness. It’s also a powerful antioxidant and enhances the delivery of glucose to help fuel the brain. Studies also have shown that vinpocetine taken before exercise improved peripheral blood flow and oxygen utilization. 

Dosing: Studies show that taking 10 to 20 milligrams three times per day with meals (for a total of 30 to 60 milligrams per day) works best. On training days, take one dose one hour before working out. 

What is it? Green tea is made from extracts of the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the same species used to make black tea. However, because green tea is not fermented or oxidized, it retains unique and beneficial components that are not available in black tea.

How does it increase focus? Green tea contains high concentrations of pharmacologically bioactive polyphenols, including epigallocatechin, epicatechin, epicatechin gallate and epigallocatechin gallate. Although green tea contains caffeine, green-tea extract is caffeine-/stimulant-free and contains a standardized concentration of high-potency EGCG. Although green-tea extract is commonly categorized as a fat burner and antioxidant, many are surprised to find out that green-tea extract is also a potent focus-enhancing supplement. A study published in Brain Research concluded that EGCG supplementation reverses anxiety, which enables a higher level of focus and attention. The EGCG in green-tea extract also has been shown to normalize cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine and 5-hydroxytryptamine in stress conditions; all those compounds are involved in modulating our depth of focus and attention. 

Dosing: Be sure to buy a product that has been standardized for EGCG. Take 200 to 400 milligrams of standardized EGCG 30 to 60 minutes before training.