LAST weekend saw “Special K” Kell Brook once again put his health and reputation, not to mention his head, in the line of fire. An initially authoritative performance against one of the very best in the world turned sour when Kell succumbed for the second time to the splintering power of a world class operator breaking his eye socket. In this situation, nutrition plays very much a supporting role – the most effective role of food for protecting your health in this situation would, I imagine, have been to ask Errol Spence to sit down and settle any differences over some tea and biscuits. However, there is some evidence that proper fuelling, hydration, and consuming certain nutrients may help prevent, and rehabilitate from, some of Kell Brook’s injuries. Having worked with a number of top level amateur and professional fighters, I’m going to provide a brief summary of nutrition for your bones and brains. These ideas, along with more simple, food-focused nutritional strategies can be found in my book “Nutrition for Combat Sports”, which provides simple, convenient recipes to maximise strength, power, endurance and weight-loss HERE.
Many studies on fighters have shown an increased, sustained release of markers of cellular damage from brain cells after a single bout of sparring (Otto, Holthusen et al. 2000). Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury (CTBI) is frequently associated with increased levels of oxidative stress, as well as greater levels of inflammation – the body’s natural defence against trauma and infection. Inflammation can however get out of hand, and become a problem in its own right. Therefore, nutritional strategies to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain may help limit this damage.
The Basics – Fuelling and Hydration
The main nutritional areas to consider when eating for brain-health are hydration and adequate carbohydrate fuelling. The muscles’ high-octane fuels of carbohydrates and creatine both play an important role to play in the brain; acting as a high-energy signals to prevent the death of brain cells. Carbohydrate will signal to your body that you are fed, and generally reduces that inflammatory, catabolic state following training. This reduces the relative impact of stress hormones. Carbohydrate is also the brain’s sole fuel, so is essential for keeping sharp, and avoiding taking unnecessary shots. Staying hydrated is also essential for protecting the brain. An MRI imaging study showed that dehydrating 3 kg (modest by the standards of many fighters) can reduce the volume of fluid around the brain by as much as 30% (Dickson, et al., 2005). If you are cutting weight and reducing your carb intake, ensure that your sparring sessions at least are well fuelled. Stay hydrated throughout training – “sweating out” will only lose water, not fat.
Cerebral Supplement ideas
A relatively well established, yet still relatively unknown supplement for cognition is creatine. This muscular/cerebral crossover makes more sense if we consider how creatine works. It is essentially a source of fuel in the cell, and one which signals a healthy, high-energy state. Creatine donates phosphates to re-synthesise ATP, the cells’ “energy currency”, but also prevents the formation of cellular time-bombs involved in cell-suicide or “apoptosis”. By obstructing cell signals arising from damage, trauma, stress or aging, creatine has been used to successfully control the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinsons, as well as to prevent the loss of brain cells following trauma. Supplementation of between 5-8g/day has been successfully used to treat symptoms of Huntingdon’s as well as improving working memory (Rae, Digney et al. 2003; Hersch, Gevorkian et al. 2006). More pertinently for fighters, there’s an emerging body of evidence that creatine can enhance mental agility following concussion, whilst research on rugby-players at the University of Bath has been reported creatine to be as effective as caffeine in counteracting the brain-numbing impact of sleep deprivation.
You can’t mention brain-food without thinking “Fish”! This traditionally held dietary dogma is well supported, as fish oils contain a fatty acod known as DHA (the building block of our brain cells), as well as an anti-inflammatory component known as EPA, shown to enhance brain functions. EPA helps the body produce less inflammatory hormones than those made from the omega-6 fatty acids, so increasing your oily fish intake or supplementing can help shift your hormonal profile towards a less inflammatory state, and so protect your brain from trauma. Supplements rich in this fatty acid have been shown to regulate inflammation throughout overtraining (3.2g/day – (Mickleborough, Murray et al. 2003), whilst having higher levels of omega-3 in the diet may help prevent neurodegenerative disease (Kidd 2007). Effective dosages would seem to be between 1.8 and 4.5g/day of EPA.
Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is a signalling molecule used in brain and muscle cells, and supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function and hormone responses in some groups of individuals. This supplement has also been shown to reduce on-going stress hormone release after exercise, again easing inflammation. A recent study showed that 18 resistance trained men were better able to do mental arithmetic before or during weights-training if they’d taken PS, compared to placebo. Doses of 800mg PS have been shown to chronically reduce post-exercise cortisol concentrations (Fahey & Pearl, 2008). You need short term elevations in stress hormones, rather than chronic release, so your body can adapt to the stress, rather than being gradually worn down!
Energy balance, (measured in Kilocalories), is the biggest factor influencing bone turnover, and is also the greatest threat to the bone health of a combat athlete. Numerous studies have shown that rapid weight reduction not only takes its toll on your muscle mass, but beleaguers your bones. The single most effective strategy to reduce the risk of fractures and reduced bone-density is to properly plan a steady, slow weight-cut, supported with high calcium sources of protein…
- Aim to lose weight at a rate of 1-2% body mass per weak. Slower weight reduction will preserve power, performance, muscle and bone
- Cycle carbohydrate to fuel harder sessions and reduce calorie intake when demands are lower
- High protein meals, padded out with big portions of vegetables will support your nutrient intake, yet allow you to tailor your energy intake by adding/taking away from your carbohydrate portion.
- Horlicks: If you’ve trained hard, horlicks (malt) will add to your carb recovery and b-vitamin uptake, supporting the actions of both the fast release, leucine-rich anabolic proteins, and the anti-catabolic, slow release casein proteins in milk.
Bone is more than just minerals. It consists of a matrix of calcium phosphate and the protein collagen, which helps provide it a certain amount of elasticity; preventing it from being too brittle. In much the same way that we should consider a slow weight-cut to preserve both muscle and bone, we should also aim to consume regular protein-feeds in order to support these tissues. Collagen is made primarily of the amino acids proline and glycine, and so eating proteins rich in these amino acids can theoretically help bone formation.
Boiling a chicken carcass will make a great, glycine-rich home-made stock to support joint and bone health; use as a base for soups, stews and rice dishes. Dairy Proteins like milk, cottage cheese and yogurt have been shown to help improve body composition and will simultaneously benefit your bones.
Vitamins and Minerals
Obviously it is essential to include calcium and phosphorus in the diet when eating for bone health, but other minerals are also important in both structural and functional roles. 50% of the body’s magnesium for example is found in bone, whilst minerals also play their roles in configuring enzymes, regulating genes, and signalling to cells involved in bone formation and reabsorption. Other minerals that re key to bone metabolism include zinc, copper, manganese, potassium and boron .
- Mineral-rich vegetables:- dark-green veg
Good for calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. All essential for bone mineralisation.
- Nuts and seeds
Also rich in Zinc and manganese, portion control according to activity. Aim to consume them as part of a lower-carb snack to keep total energy balance in check.
Bone synthesis also depends on vitamins which enable chemical reactions. Vitamin D helps stimulate bone formation, whilst vitamin K is also invaluable.
- Now we’re in summer time – get out in the sun! This is the best source of vitamin D. Take care not to burn.
- Certain cereals, milk-drinks and low-fat spreads are fortified with vitamin D; look out for these products which, although only making a slight dent compared to getting adequate sunlight-exposure, will make a difference to those verging on deficiency.
- Good natural sources would be foods rich in “good fats” (as vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin), in particular cheese, sardines, salmon and eggs.
- Vitamin K (or specifically vitamin K2 in bone metabolism) works by modifying proteins so that they can interact with calcium to support bone formation. It’s found in high levels in green, leafy vegetables; so cabbages, greens, broccoli and sprouts would be just the ticket. Spinach is a particularly good exponent.
- Vitamin C is also essential for collagen formation, so consider fruit as part of your carb-refuelling strategies
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