Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Substance review: Soy isoflavones

Isoflavones are a group of plant derivatives, usually from the soy bean. They are traditionally purported to have a role in reducing heart disease, reducing cancer, assisting in bone health and easing the symptoms of menopause. Soy beans are a native of eastern Asian where they are used extensively in the diet of both humans and livestock and also as a tool for regulating soil in farming. Many popular Asian cooking sauces such as miso are derived from soy-bean, though not all of them contain flavanoids - for example the obvious candidate soy sauce is not usually a source of flavanoids.

Soy beans are considered to be a complete proteins, that is a protein that when consumed also contains the necessary amino acids to maximise the absorption (or bioavailability) of the protein. For this reason it is favoured amongst vegetarians as a good alternative to meat products over other less complete beans.

The mechanism of soy isoflavones come from their chemical structure. The structure of an isoflavone is very similar to the naturally occurring hormone oestrogen and so they are known as a phytoestrogen, in other words an organic substances that can regulate oestrogen in the human body. Soy isoflavones can either compete for oestrogen recptors or increase the amount of oestrogen in the body, depending on the type of phyoestrogen. The two phytoestrogens that are considered to be most beneficial are genistein and daidzen.

Physical effects:
Isoflavones have been seen to cause the feminizing of male animals in a number of trials, due to the effects of there interaction with oestrogen receptors. As a result there is some concern over there effects on male fertility and testosterone levels. Most of these worries however appear to be unfounded, a meta-analysis showed no feminizing effect on healthy men and similarly a clinical trial from the UK found no decrease in virility. Unfortunately that meta-analysis could also be bias as it is paid for in part by the soy industry and conflicts in a minor way with a different trial from one of the same researchers.

Cognitive Effects:
A trial from Australia recorded a significant increase spatial working memory in healthy men. This corresponds with the female ability to out perform in this area, while males generally out perform in visual spatial processing. It should be noted that there appears there is no obvious cognitive improvement in woman, including post-menopausal women for whom soy is purported to be of benefit. Soy has also at times been attributed to memory loss by mainstream media, however this appears to have been taken out of context for the purposes of marketability. The study focus on a number of Indonesian soy consumers, whose tofu is prepared using formaldehyde, compare that to research from the same group which showed tempe (a fermented soy product) improved memory and its not hard to see there was some data clustering.

Soy Isoflavones should be used at low dosages for men in sports where spatial memory (as opposed to spatial processing) is used. Its not hard to see how increased spatial working memory can help in situations where establishing the form of patterns is useful - a quarterback reading a defensive pattern or a martial artist noticing a pattern in a flaw of their opponent's fighting style. Although it has yet to be properly established, it is probably best to avoid higher dosages of soy, for example as an alternative to whey protein. For women this could cause an imbalance in their oestrogen levels and for men this could significantly reduce the positive effects of testosterone.

Further reading:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Substance review: Piracetam

One of the most popular substances purported to have a nootropic effect is Piracetam. UCB Laboratories in Belgium invented Piracetam in 1964 as a derivative of GABA, the neural system responsible for inhibiting neurotransmission the speed of the chemical reactions that trigger thought. Unlike the GABA pathways, the research team found no apparent evidence of it sedating the brain. The substance had such an impact on lead researcher Corneliu Giurgea that he coined the term "nootropic" itself in 1972 after observing the individual cases of enhanced mental functions.

The exact mechanism of Piracetam is unknown and it is not recognised as being a stimulant or a sedative. Various theories about its mechanism tend to focus on increasing neurotransmission through increasing permeability of the blood brain barrier, increasing the rate at which ion transfers occur and manipulating the receptors of various neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine. It has a similar structure to levetiracetam, which is used in epilepsy and while different it may have an effect on the part of the brain that connects the hemispheres, called the corpus collosum.

Before we continue to purported effects I want to reiterate that properly conducted trials on this substance are rare and that the content based here is opinion based on incomplete information.

Physical effects:
Although there is anecdotal evidence of Piracetam causing insomnia, nausia and gastrointestinal discomfort, various studies of piracetams applications outside of memory have not shown side-effects. This short term epileptic trial and this stroke trial from Belgium on high dosages of Piracetam reported no significant physical differences from a placebo. Piracetam at the time of posting is presumably safe.

Cognitive effects:
Despite its history and usage over the last 40 or so years there is a limited range of mostly positive trials. In the 70s a trial on post-concussive effects of piracetam was conducted and found significant benefits. A German study showed quick cognitive recovery after bypass surgery and another large Ukrainian trial showed children's cognitive recovery improving after piracetam dosages. A large trial on dislexic patients found an increase in processing ability and for those with existing poor memory as did a few other trials around the mid 80s, but effective trials on the broader population are missing.

Piracetam is a promising sports nootropic. The nootropic seems particular useful for contact sports and any sports where a head clash might occur. Research indicates its restorative effects would reduce the amount of time required to restore brain function, which is could be of substantial benefit to fight sports. A sports cognition boost in general is also promising. The anecdotal evidence and numerous animal studies point to benefits in learning and focus. Combine that with no obvious side-effects from several large studies and the risk/reward profile seems ideal.

Further reading:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cognition and sports

Cognition in general is a tricky thing to test. Its not particularly clear what people mean when they say "I want to increase cognition" so it makes sense to categorise it. In the 70s a pharmacologist name Cornelius Giurgea coined the term nootropics in his search for a drug or substance that could generally enhance cognition. He came up with the following framework:

-Enhance learning and memory, especially under conditions of disturbed neural metabolism resulting from a lack of oxygen, electroshock or age-related changes
-Facilitate information flow between the cerebral hemispheres
-Enhance the general resistance of the brain to physical and chemical injuries
-Be devoid of any other psychological or physiological effects

Looking at his definition we see it lacking in sophistication. The facilitation of information flow between hemispheres seems extremely vague and the requirement to be devoid of side effects seems overly ambitious. More importantly it doesn't seem that relevant to sport. Far better to instead use a framework that included some of the established concepts of brain function and to include features that were testable in some quantitative way.

It is way outside the scope of this blog to define intelligence, but for its purposes we will assume it to be the efficient use of the brain to achieve the best results in any particular sport. When you consider what would help you build as a sportsman you are most likely thinking of long term memory retrieval: the ability to draw on expertise gathered from training. There are broadly two types of long term memory:

1. Acting on learned phenomena, called "procedural" or "implicit" memory
2. Understanding what phenomena is, called "declaritive" or "explicit" memory

For example there is something called the "mirror test" in which Alzheimers patients will be asked to learn a hand-eye coordination skill by drawing. The patients cannot recall performing the test because of their declarative memory impairment however their skill level at drawing in reverse is retained so their procedural memory is in tact.

When you consider specific sports you can see they often involve a delicate combination of both. On one hand you have something like golf, whereby the procedural action is working overtime, however there will still be declarative instances when you find yourself playing a new course with odd terrain. On the other hand you are playing tennis you will probably not only want to be able to recall procedurally your server, but also facts about how your opponent deals with backhands, whether she has a powerful serve etc.

Short-term memory hardly seems to be a factor in sport other than perhaps communicating a play or strategy so it will be largely ignored by this blog. Rather working memory is applicable as it encompasses short term memory and involves manipulation of stored short term data. In the examples above working memory would allow the golfer to quickly adapt to a change in wind and the tennis player to react to her opponent's better than expected backhand.

In this case any ingredient that successfully improves procedural, declarative and/or working memory in a siginificant fashion will be identified as a prime candidate for a mental enhancement supplement in sports.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Substance Review: Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgos are deciduous trees that are ancient enough to be considered living fossils and have been found in the fossil record across the world. They are primarily associated with Asia where the only remaining wild Ginkos grow and where the plant got its reputation as a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Ginko's earliest mention is in the "Shen-nung pen-ts'ao ching" as an aid for circulation and breathing. Since then various applications of its fruit, leaves and bark have been administered for a range of conditions until eventually Ginkgo found its way to western medicine in the 1950s. In modern alternative medicine it is found as an extract of the fan-like leaves and most often used as a way to enhance learning, help prevent Alzheimer's and improve mood. It has reached quite popular levels with an estimate 2% of the American population using it as a herbal remedy.

Its not documented with any reliability as to how Ginkgo Biloba works, but its modern application focuses on the flavanoids or biologically active material in the leaves known as ginkgolides and bilobalides. It is theorised that these flavanoids are GABA antagonists, which means they stop or slowdown neurotransmission. A light inhibition of nuerotransmission is associated with a reduction of anxiety and a possible maintainance of concentration, while increased inhibition leads to sleepiness.

Physical effects:
If ginkgo creates this calming effect, it may be useful as a nerve settler before a big match or event, but this could come at the cost of feeling lethargic. Of more concern is Ginko's reported side-effects, in particular intercranial bleeding. A comprehensive meta-analysis showed that there was a link between gingko and spontaneous bleeding, though this was most strogly associated with participants who had existing conditions.

Cognitive effects:
For our purposes, Alzheimers is of no true relevance to the improvement of sports specifically so we should focus on ginkgo's purported learning, memory and mood enhancement. That is not to say we will ignore mature atheletes (a category where one of the better gingko studies showed some promise), only that it does not follow that older atheletes will have Alzheimers so it is of no direct benefit to sport.

The amassed research for Gingko is formed of equal parts for and against the herb as a cognitive enhancer. If you stick to the research with best-practice methodologies and ignore the more theoretical studies on rats or small samples of participants, the evidence tends to sway away from any significant cognitive benefit. A popular supplement company's gingko formula was tested to no effect. Similarly a Swedish trial found no impact on memory or learning. That said, a British trial found that Gingko improved quality of memory, while significantly hampering speed of attention. Also in one of the more reliable positive studies ginkgo was found to enhance sustained attention and pattern recognition, however after 6 weeks this enhancement was lost. I would question as to whether it washed out or if it was merely chance and other factors that improved memory attention at the beginning of the trial.

Ginkgo biloba, may have some very specific cognitive benefits, but it is unlikely. Older athletes looking to stay on top of there game might benefit from cognitive enhancement in remembering and sustained application of say a triathlete's race plan. Younger athlete's might not gain any real benefits from gingko biloba and any they do may well wash out after minimal use. The well conducted trials all point to a distinct lack of evidence for cognitive enhancement, depsite what is touted by TCM and when you consider its genesis in this field was as a blood circulator it hardly seems surprising. Under no circumstance would I recommend gingko as a supplement for martial artists or participants in contact sports. There is a significant correlation between ginkgo and exacerbating bleeding, in particular intercranial bleeding. The risk isnt worth the reward.

What to watch out for:
Sometimes its put in with other herbal remedies and while it may not necessarily be of a significant dosage its good to keep an eye out for:

  • Ginkgo biloba is sometime mislabelled as gingko
  • Yin Xing
  • Maidenhair derivatives

Further reading:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Conflicting Evidence in Substance Studies

One of things that struck me as I looked into the use of caffeine as a sports supplement was the lack of a study that you would consider as definitive as well the conflicting nature of many reports. In particular caffeine's efficacy in interval type sports was varied as well as the debate around how caffeine and creatine interact with each other.

Considering caffeine is almost certainly going to be one of the most studied and popular supplements I look at, I imagine it will be hard to draw accurate conclusions on the definitive nature of their effects.

This doesn't dissuade me from the quest to find a sports nootropic, it just reinforces that I will have to be vigilant in my reviews, particularly in some of the more out-there supplements and herbs.

Here's a few things I plan to keep in mind while reading the research:
  • Publicly available. That way you can check it out too and hopefully I can get some insight from any interested readers.
  • I want it to be designed well i.e. double-blind, placebo research. Research where the subjects or experimenters can sway the result isn't likely to impress me or provide the greatest results.
  • I want decent sample sizes. Testing only 10 or so people wont exactly represent an substance's effect on the wider population.
Edit: I came across this a bit in my current research reviews so I'm adding it in now:
  • Human trials. The value of testing a cell in a labratory or even just in rats is of little application until further, specific research is carried out.

Sources and further reading: