Food for meditation and performance: Are we missing the link in today’s fast-food life?

Since gut health heavily influences athletes’ performance and mental resilience, nutrition plays a crucial role in shaping their cognitive function, emotional state, and overall success.

Published : Jan 23, 2024 12:48 IST - 8 MINS READ

Eat smart: To be the best you have to invest in the discipline of doing what no one else does! See Novak Djokovic, his dietary discipline, mental grit and longevity. Time for you to rethink your diet.
Eat smart: To be the best you have to invest in the discipline of doing what no one else does! See Novak Djokovic, his dietary discipline, mental grit and longevity. Time for you to rethink your diet. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Eat smart: To be the best you have to invest in the discipline of doing what no one else does! See Novak Djokovic, his dietary discipline, mental grit and longevity. Time for you to rethink your diet. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

I just finished a meeting with Dr. Radhakrishna Pillai, the author of around 15 books on the principles of Chanakya. Chanakya’s wisdoms and teaching is known to be as the ‘Maker of Kings’! As a meditation guru and teacher of leaders, Dr. Pillai made me realise that there is no shortcut to excellence. One can face uphill battles and demons of their own personality in the path to designing the best version of themselves. The same applies to sport, where every athlete strives to win gold and be a leader on the podium. 

As I counsel athletes on nutrition’s impact on performance, it’s evident to me on a daily basis that athletes’ behaviour and discipline are significantly driven by their mental health. Healthy mental well-being requires focus on both the mind and the breath, the ability to recognise the calming of thoughts and flip the switch to mental grit.

According to me, not eating correctly results from an indisciplined mind, giving into the temptations of junk food, which will tie a vicious noose around the athletes’ neck causing them to short circuit their own success via depletion of their mental health.

The meeting with Dr Pillai had three takeaways:

1. Work with a mind coach — The mental, meditation and spiritual planes lie within your mind and breath.

2. Work with a sports nutritionist — Eating right enhances your brain connectivity with all your planes of existence.

3. Start writing your own book of strategies to become world class — Putting in hard work to working on the self is not limited to only the physical body but also the mental body.

So, when athletes come to me with whispers of anxiety, stress, or concerns about their mental well-being, I ask myself — ‘are we failing to feed the athlete correctly?’ Given that athletes must push both their physical and mental limits to achieve peak performance, significant attention must be diverted to training regimen, nutrition, and recovery. It becomes imperative to explore the intricate connection between diet, the gut microbiome (comprising all microorganisms in the digestive system), and mental well-being, especially in relation to anxiety.

The gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms present in the digestive tract, playing a crucial role in the connection between the brain and the gut. The gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication system between the gut and the central nervous system, is increasingly being recognised as a key player in this intricate relationship. Anxiety can become a silent adversary to the rigours of competition, training, and performance expectations, affecting an athlete’s mental well-being and, consequently, their capacity for optimal performance.

Recent studies indicate that the composition of the gut microbiome can impact the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), essential in mood regulation and anxiety management.

In simple terms, your gut can calm you down if it’s fed the right raw material. Fed the wrong kind of food, it may leave you less protected against mental stress. In 2021, when I was working with Olympians, I remember summarising with my nutritionists research on the gut microbiota-producing bioactive compounds, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

These are linked to improved cognitive function and reduced anxiety. So, for everyone from cricketers and boxers to humans who are required to push the levels of their performance, feeding the right food has an immediate impact on brain chemistry.

In a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, athletes with more diverse gut microbiome had lower levels of anxiety as compared to those with less diverse microbial communities.

Therefore, when a meditation guru aims to improve meditation in someone’s life, I suggest elevating the plane of cellular health through enhanced nutrition. This nutrition should serve the gut, facilitating effective feedback to the brain for an improved thought process. The same logic applies to the other end of the spectrum when grappling with anxiety and depression. Eat better to feel better; eat bad and you feel bad.

Lets dive a little more into some information.

Impact of Gut Microbiome on Athletic Performance

The diversity of the gut microbiome’s composition could influence an athlete’s energy metabolism, the recovery rate, and their susceptibility to injuries.

The gut microbiome has been implicated in influencing how the body extracts energy from nutrients. Certain bacteria within the microbiota may enhance the breakdown of complex carbohydrates, producing short-chain fatty acids that serve as an additional energy source. This enhanced energy metabolism could potentially contribute to improved endurance and stamina in athletes.

Athletes subject their bodies to intense physical stress on a regular basis, leading to inflammation and muscle damage. Some studies suggest that maintaining a balanced and diverse gut microbiome may play a role in regulating inflammation, potentially expediting the recovery process and lowering the risk of injuries from overtraining.

Efficient nutrient absorption is paramount for athletes aiming to optimise their performance. The gut microbiome helps in breaking down and absorbing nutrients, including vitamins and minerals essential for muscle function, bone health, and overall well-being.

A healthy gut microbiome is closely linked to a robust immune system. For athletes, preserving immune function is essential to prevent illness and avoid disruptions to their training schedules. Research suggests that a well-balanced gut microbiome may contribute to a more resilient immune system.

Herbal Allies for Soothing Anxiety:

Tulsi (Holy Basil): Tulsi is a revered herb in India with adaptogenic properties and is known for its calming effects on the nervous system. You can consume tulsi tea or add fresh tulsi leaves to your diet.

Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is another adaptogenic herb that is believed to help the body manage stress. It can be consumed in powdered form, as a supplement, or added to warm milk.

Chamomile: Chamomile tea is popular for its calming properties. It can help relax the muscles and soothe the mind. Enjoying a cup of chamomile tea before bedtime may promote better sleep.

Lavender: Lavender is known for its soothing aroma. You can use lavender essential oil in a diffuser, add a few drops to a bath, or even apply it to your pillow to help induce relaxation.

Amla (Indian gooseberry): Rich in Vitamin C, amla is known for its antioxidant properties and may help the body to cope with stress. Consuming it in various forms, such as fresh fruit or juice, can be beneficial.

Peppermint: Peppermint is not only refreshing but may also have calming effects on the digestive system, indirectly contributing to a sense of relaxation. Peppermint tea is a commonly favoured option.

Cardamom: Cardamom is a spice that is not only aromatic but may also have mild sedative properties. Adding it to your tea or incorporating it into cooking can be a delightful way to enjoy its benefits.

Nutrient-Rich Foods for Enhanced Mental Health in Athletes:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fatty fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts, Omega-3 supports brain cell structure, reduces inflammation, and contributes to mental resilience.

Complex Carbohydrates: Whole grains, sweet potatoes, and legumes provide sustained glucose release, fueling both physical activities and stable blood sugar levels crucial for mood and focus.

Lean Proteins: Chicken, turkey, tofu, and fish supply essential amino acids vital for the production of neurotransmitters, influencing mood and supporting mental well-being during training and recovery.

Colourful Fruits and Vegetables: Organic berries, leafy greens, and citrus fruits offer antioxidants that combat oxidative stress, promoting cognitive function and overall mental well-being in athletes.

Probiotics and Fermented Foods: Found in homemade curd, kefir, fermented veggies and night-old dosa batter, probiotics foster a healthy gut microbiome, potentially impacting mood regulation and providing an extra layer of mental resilience.

Nuts and Seeds: These tiny powerhouses, like almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds, provide healthy fats and magnesium, supporting optimal brain function and aiding stress management in athletes.

Dark Chocolate: These delightful treats, designed to enhance brain function, have a high cocoa content that provides flavonoids, potentially improving blood flow.

This can enhance cognitive function, offering athletes a mood-elevating treat. Opt for chocolate with 70 percent cocoa content or higher!

Bone Broth: A nutrient-dense elixir, bone broth is rich in collagen and amino acids, supporting gut lining integrity and promoting a healthy digestive tract.

Chia Seeds: These tiny seeds are high in fibre, promoting bowel regularity and providing a source of prebiotics that nourish beneficial gut bacteria.

Blueberries: Packed with antioxidants and fibre, blueberries contribute to an ecosystem of diverse gut microbiome, supporting digestive health and reducing inflammation.

Quinoa: A gluten-free grain, quinoa is not only a source of prebiotics but also provides essential nutrients that support overall gut function.

Turmeric: Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric can help soothe the digestive system and promote a healthy gut environment.

Dark Leafy Greens: Spinach, kale, and other dark leafy greens are rich in fibre and antioxidants, fostering a favourable environment for beneficial gut bacteria.

For athletes to win the mental game and have endless grit, they should reconsider their eating strategies and dietary discipline in life. There is no off season for athletes when it comes to food. Your brain, your gut or any part of your body never goes on vacation. So why does your brain and diet need to take break? Think about it. To be the best you have to invest in the discipline of doing what no one else does! See Novak Djokovic, his dietary discipline, mental grit and longevity. Time for you to rethink your diet.

In this Olympic year, I am helping athletes reach their potential winning capabilities via sports nutrition. Please feel free to reach out to me for your supplement strategies and food plans.

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