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Performance Enhancement Nutrition through Understanding How Gender Differences Impact Cognitive Processes

Susan Hewlings, PhD, RD Vice President of Research Affairs Radicle Science
Doug Kalman PhD, RD Co-Founder Substantiation Sciences Consulting

When seeking sports nutrition recommendations, there’s often discussion of hydration, macronutrients, and other substances and how they impact physical performance. However, recent research has highlighted the importance of cognitive function and its impact on sports performance. Therefore, many active people seeking to get an edge on the competition are paying closer attention to mental fitness and the role it plays in athletic performance. As a result, cognitive sports nutrition is an emerging area of research.

 

Cognitive Sports Nutrition

Cognitive sports nutrition encompasses not only an understanding of brain energetics but also how dietary constituents impact brain (neurological) and physical (muscle) performance. The ability to do sports and perform well is directly related to an athlete’s nutritional status. However, the role of cognition has typically been under-appreciated.

Sports performance requires high levels of attention and cognition to execute physical performance. Cognition is used to take in, digest, discern and use visual and non-visual information. Cognitive domains from least complex to most complex include sensation and perception, motor skills and construction, attention and concentration, memory, executive functioning, processing speed, and language and verbal skills. Nutrition status, hydration state, and current and recent dietary and supplement intake may have an impact on any or all of the aforementioned cognitive domains, many of which are used in sport.

Cognitive sports nutrition is the application of nutrition to support and potentially enhance cognitive function and mood states in those who are physically active, whether they are a competitive or recreational athletes.1

Like many areas related to sports performance, most of the research in cognitive function has been conducted on male athletes, leaving the question as to whether there are gender differences.

 

Gender Differences in Cognitive Sports Nutrition

It is recognized that men and women exhibit differences in energy metabolism and hydration needs, which can impact cognitive function during sports performance. Men typically have higher energy expenditure and muscle mass compared to women, necessitating tailored nutritional approaches. For instance, studies have suggested that women may rely more on fat oxidation as an energy source during endurance exercise, while men exhibit higher rates of carbohydrate oxidation.2 Consequently, adjusting macronutrient intake based on gender-specific metabolic differences may be crucial for supporting cognitive function during exercise training and competition.

There are many aspects of cognitive functions such as attention, memory, learning and more that may vary based on gender. Research suggests that women may outperform men in tasks requiring sustained attention and multitasking abilities, although it may be task-specific.3 Hormonal fluctuations across the menstrual cycle can also influence attentional processes, potentially impacting sports performance.4

Gender differences in some types of memory function have been reported, with some studies indicating superior verbal memory in females and better spatial memory in males.5 Hormonal factors, such as estrogen and testosterone, may modulate memory processes through their effects on neural plasticity and synaptic transmission.6  Cognitive flexibility, essential for adapting to changing situations, may vary between genders.7Hormonal fluctuations, particularly in estrogen levels, have been implicated in cognitive flexibility, with potential implications for sports performance under stress.8

So, how does this translate to everyday applications? The sports or performance nutritionist must have an understanding of integrated metabolism and physiological/biological processes. Athletes should receive personalized nutrition recommendations considering gender-specific differences in energy metabolism, hydration, and cognitive function. Gender-sensitive assessments by dietitians and sports or performance nutritionists can optimize performance outcomes.9  Understanding the influence of sex hormones on cognitive function can inform targeted interventions to enhance performance. Hormonal differences between the genders and within the female gender also contributes to cognitive function. Nutritional strategies supporting hormone balance may benefit both male and female athletes.10,11  Furthermore, understanding the specific cognitive demands of the sport so that any food and/or supplement approach can appropriately target the appropriate cognitive function and goals of the athlete would be ideal.12

Above all, more research on female athletes accounting for phase of menstrual cycle or exogenous hormones is key to furthering our understanding of gender differences in cognitive sports nutrition and their impact on performance.13

References:

  1. Cognitive Sport Nutrition. SHPN Expeditions 2023 Vol 3 No. 2. 19-22.
  2. Cano A, Ventura L, Martinez G, Cugusi L, Caria M, Deriu F, Manca A. Analysis of sex-based differences in energy substrate utilization during moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2022 Jan;122(1):29-70. doi: 10.1007/s00421-021-04802-5. Epub 2021 Sep 22. Erratum in: Eur J Appl Physiol. 2022 Jul;122(7):1749. PMID: 34550468; PMCID: PMC8748379.
  3. Lui, K. F., Yip, K. H., & Wong, A. C.-N. (2021). Gender differences in multitasking experience and performance. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(2), 344-362. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747021820960707
  4. Pletzer B, Harris TA, Ortner T. Sex and menstrual cycle influences on three aspects of attention. Physiol Behav. 2017 Oct 1;179:384-390. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.07.012. Epub 2017 Jul 8. PMID: 28694156; PMCID: PMC7115981.
  5. Voyer D, Voyer SD, Saint-Aubin J. Sex differences in visual-spatial working memory: A meta-analysis. Psychon Bull Rev. 2017 Apr;24(2):307-334. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1085-7. PMID: 27357955.
  6. Smith CM, Register TA, Learmann EA. Hormonal Modulation of Memory Processes in Women. J of Neuroscience Research. 2019. 97(2):147-157.
  7. Monni A, Scandola M, Hélie S, Scalas LF. Cognitive flexibility assessment with a new Reversal learning task paradigm compared with the Wisconsin card sorting test exploring the moderating effect of gender and stress. Psychol Res. 2023 Jul;87(5):1439-1453. doi: 10.1007/s00426-022-01763-y. Epub 2022 Nov 11. PMID: 36369387; PMCID: PMC9651887.
  8. Shields, G. S., Trainor, B. C., Lam, J. C. W., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). Acute stress impairs cognitive flexibility in men, not women. Stress, 19(5), 542–546. https://doi.org/10.1080/10253890.2016.1192603
  9. Wohlgemuth KJ, Arieta LR, Brewer GJ, Hoselton AL, Gould LM, Smith-Ryan AE. Sex differences and considerations for female specific nutritional strategies: a narrative review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021 Apr 1;18(1):27. doi: 10.1186/s12970-021-00422-8. PMID: 33794937; PMCID: PMC8015182.
  10. Helm MM, McGinnis GR, Basu A. Impact of Nutrition-Based Interventions on Athletic Performance during Menstrual Cycle Phases: A Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jun 10;18(12):6294. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18126294. PMID: 34200767; PMCID: PMC8296102.
  11. Elliott-Sale KJ, Minahan CL, de Jonge XAKJ, Ackerman KE, Sipilä S, Constantini NW, Lebrun CM, Hackney AC. Methodological Considerations for Studies in Sport and Exercise Science with Women as Participants: A Working Guide for Standards of Practice for Research on Women. Sports Med. 2021 May;51(5):843-861. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01435-8. Epub 2021 Mar 16. PMID: 33725341; PMCID: PMC8053180.
  12. Castanier C, Bougault V, Teulier C, Jaffré C, Schiano-Lomoriello S, Vibarel-Rebot N, Villemain A, Rieth N, Le-Scanff C, Buisson C, Collomp K. The Specificities of Elite Female Athletes: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Life (Basel). 2021 Jun 26;11(7):622. Doi: 10.3390/life11070622. PMID: 34206866; PMCID: PMC8303304.
  13. Brown JK, Williams AB. Gender-specific considerations in cognitive sports nutrition research: Future directions. J Sports Sci. 20XX;XX(X):XXX-XXX.

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