(October, 2017)

Nutrition in athletics

Exercise can be stressful, even harmful, but can benefit health greatly if done properly. Otherwise, the wear and tear takes a toll, not just on the joints, but also on circulation, cognition, vision & immunity. Many would-be jocks mistakenly believe that exercise is the path to health and longevity, while ignoring other dietary and lifestyle factors. Prepared athletes, on the other hand, engage all the pieces on their chess board.

One key consideration is choice of fuel. Carb loading has been recommended for decades, but a high-fat diet may be better for athletes and people on the go (11). Fats burn cleaner than carbs (cause less oxidative damage), and have been the preferred fuel for most of human evolution. The number of mitochondria (energy factories) in brain cells increases with a high-fat (ketogenic) diet, improving both power and endurance. A high-fat diet makes you faster because it provides an unlimited supply of energy, promotes weight loss and speeds recovery (4). It also accelerates cartilage repair (31). You get back to full strength quicker with a fat & protein-based (e.g., Paleo) or low carb diet, and there’s no associated side effects of significance. Dr. Mercola ably discusses several strategic high fat diets for athletes, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts in his new book, “Fat for Fuel” (9).

Beyond carbs, fats and protein, numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are involved in metabolism during exercise, repair, and muscle building. Mineral antioxidants (e.g., iodine manganese, selenium, copper) and co-factors (e.g., iron, magnesium, zinc), antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E), and several coenzyme B vitamins  support rigorous exercise and repair. Then there’s the macro-minerals: sodium, potassium and calcium, involved in so many physiologic functions (2). If any of these nutrients are in short supply, the body can’t function at full capacity. Athletes need a solid macro- and micronutrient foundation to train hard and compete at their best (12).

Warriors needs are greater

I recently read “The 5 Dharma Types” by Simon Chokoisky, which explores the Vedic wisdom for discovering one’s purpose in life (5). It is a handbook for unlocking the soul’s purpose and manifesting a fulfilling life. Accordingly, every human falls into one dharma type: 1) Educator, 2) Warrior, 3) Merchant, 4) Laborer, or 5) Outsider. There’s some overlap but–like a computer operating system–just one governs your destiny. You can take a test online to ascertain your Dharma type (http://spirittype.com). Each dharma type has its own stresses and strains, and its own set of conditions and nutrients to best achieve its life purpose. This is especially so for Warriors, who pose the most rigorous nutritional challenges.

Athletes are the most obvious Warriors, but they come in many guises in our society. They dominate the armed forces, law enforcement, and politics. They manifest as firefighters, doctors, actors, athletes and leaders. A Warrior’s duty is to protect good guys and punish bad guys (or vice versa for evil Warriors). Warriors enjoy challenging themselves and pushing the envelope. They want to be heroes. At a primal level, all men are Warriors and protectors.

With such intense focus, drive and discipline, Warriors are the most highly skilled of the dharma types. But this high intensity requires extra fuel, nutrients & antioxidants to get the edge these perfectionists seek. Without good nutrition, Warriors are more dangerous to themselves than helpful. There’s a reason why most athletes are nutrition and vitamin buffs, or work closely with a nutritional guru and other Educators to function at high levels. Athletes, soldiers and other Warriors really need to know their stuff.

Since athletes burn more calories, they generate more destructive free radicals and toxins that must be neutralized and discarded. Despite their superior antioxidant defense systems, athletes need a variety of antioxidants from food and supplements to put out the flames and keep things running smoothly (8). This is especially so for vision, a Warrior’s main instrument. Hand-eye coordination, focus and intensity are important for visual types. Hard driving athletes could suffer vision loss from the rigors of training and competition. Even the slightest reduction in visual acuity can place an athlete at a competitive disadvantage. Optimizing vision could make the difference in batting average, catching balls in bright or dim light, or minimizing reaction time. Our eyes require many nutrients throughout life to function properly (16).

Special Nutrients for Warriors

There are several nutrients that athletes need more than most, but none more important than omega-3s (7). Omega-3s sports benefits have been supported in several recent studies. High dose fish oil was shown to increase exercise economy and endurance exercise performance in humans (17), and boosted performance in cyclists by increasing nitric oxide and blood flow (32). Fish oil reduced muscle soreness and fatigue after exercise, and markers of muscle damage (30). Omega-3 supplements also improved neuromuscular function, fatigue, and increased thigh muscle function in athletes (21). Like WD-40 for the body, omega-3s are definitely game changers.

Optimizing omega-3 nutrition depends on two factors:

  1. getting enough from the right foods (e.g., toxin-free, undenatured, or pharmaceutical-grade fish oil, or krill oil). Clinical trials employ several more grams of fish oil for athletes than the normal dose, because they need more.
  2. protecting them from oxidative damage. Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are easily destroyed and cannot be maintained on their own. To keep these polyunsaturated fatty acids intact, many antioxidants are needed (3,10,13,26). This is especially true in tissues where omega-3s are most concentrated, as in the eyes and brain. That’s also where the antioxidants lutein & zeaxanthin (L&Z) are found.

Supplementing with L&Z improved vision in several clinical trials. L&Z enhanced visual acuity (22), improved glare sensitivity (29) and contrast sensitivity (33), reduced chromatic blur (25), and improved vision in dim light in humans (19,24,33). Veterans who took zeaxanthin [8 mg/day] for 12 months showed greater recognition of fine detail, improvement of 1.5-lines on the eye chart, disappearance of blind spots, and improved night driving (24). Clearly, long-term L&Z intake benefits vision, especially in spatial discrimination tasks under high or low illumination (14,19).

Glare sensitivity, whether to reflected or bright light, affects one’s ability to see clearly. While sunglasses control glare, L&Z create an internal filter in the lens and retina to protect vision and reduce glare. These yellow carotenoids are concentrated in the macula–at the very center of vision–to protect against sun damage and macular degeneration (16,22,24,25). In the lens, they help prevent cataracts (1,33). L&Z boost contrast sensitivity, which allows for greater visual discernment; a key attribute in sports performance. Increased visual acuity is well supported–whether in bright or dim light– and can help anyone stay in the game (14,16,19,28,32); especially the maxed-out athlete, who craves extra antioxidant protection (18). U. of Georgia researchers recently linked visual processing speed and reaction time to zeaxanthin (20). Found in many green, yellow & orange vegetables, paprika and marigold–zeaxanthin is often lacking in the modern diet, so Warriors should consider supplementation.

Vitamin companies and baseball teams have already leveraged the “lutein for athletes” thing. Now it’s time to extrapolate the those benefits to Warriors in general, which go far beyond vision. L&Z are among the few nutrients that cross the blood-brain barrier. They comprise nearly 75% of all carotenoid antioxidants found in the brain (6), and are concentrated in regions involved in learning and memory (16). Both omega-3s and L&Z have been shown to improve learning and memory, but especially in combination (15). Lutein status in the brain’s grey matter is linked to cognitive performance across the lifespan (28), and may also help with anxiety and depression (23,30).

Beyond athletics, a world of men and women could benefit from preserving & sharpening their visual and mental skills. You don’t have to be Hercules or Mohamed Ali to connect to your Warrior roots.  Be it a judge, a political leader, a doctor, or local hero, all could benefit from a regimen that enhances visual acuity and alertness.

Other Nutrients for Warriors

There’s a bevy of nutrients that Warriors need, above and beyond most dharma types. Dr. Mercola’s list of best foods for muscle growth include healthy fats and high quality protein (e.g., wild salmon, nuts, seeds, grass-fed beef, whey protein, coconut oil, olive oil, MCT oil, avocados). Recommended fruits and vegetables include spinach, kale, broccoli, sprouts, berries, bananas, watermelon, grapefruit, papaya and mushrooms (8). Several of these foods are good sources of omega-3s, lutein and zeaxanthin.

Here are a few other recent reports on sports nutrients (mostly antioxidants):

  1. Whey protein and tocotrienols both increased running times in rats (3).
  2. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) improved whey protein muscle building (27).
  3. Beet juice reduced the negative effects of muscle hypoxia after exercise and increased exercise endurance in humans. Nitrates in beets help lower blood pressure and relax smooth muscle, adding to its value as a sports supplement (13).
  4. Pine bark extract or Pycnogenol improves endurance performance in trained athletes likely by increasing serum NAD+ levels. Athletes report less cramping and muscle pain. Muscle recovery time is improved, apparently due to the potent antioxidants in pine bark extract (10).
  5. A blend of extracts from mangosteen, elderberry, and pomegranate may delay muscle soreness and help manage post-exercise recovery (26).

Warriors Need Educators

Warriors also benefit from relationships with another Dharma type, The Educator. Educators steer Warriors in the right direction, helping them reach their apex in every aspect of work or play, from fitness to psychology, to nutrition. Warriors need coaches to keep them seeking higher virtues. Arjuna needed Krishna, Alexander needed Aristotle, Arthur needed Merlin, Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson, Brady has Belichick (and Campbell, his chef). Education and nutrition make for great Warriors.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us to embrace our dharma, or purpose in life. For Warriors, this means taking care of your body. Our heroes and leaders need to up their nutritional regimens to function at high levels for long stretches, and look good doing it. Warrior nutrients like omega-3s, lutein and zeaxanthin provide the edge for peak performance.

If you want to be a Warrior, focus on the nutrients that keep your eyes and brain working well, no matter what the task.


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