Sugar. Sugar. Sugar. As you can tell by my previous posts, I'm not a nutritionist. I'm a pharmacist. However, every medical provider knows the value of a good nutritional plan. In fact, the first therapy a medical provider should recommend is a nutritious diet. By just changing your diet, you can cure almost any disease known to man. There is no drug in the world that is more efficacious than a quality diet.
I'm not going to go into detail about how nutrition can benefit the human body. There are plenty of books that I can recommend that will do a much better job than I can. However, I am going to give you some basic tips about nutrition. These tips aren't the end all-be all of a quality nutritional regimen. They are a good start though. In fact, if you're diet sucks and you follow my recommendations, you'll notice the benefits within a week or two. Even though these tips are specifically geared toward poker and mental performance, they'll benefit almost every organ in your body.
I personally guarantee that if you follow the following tips, your mental performance will improve more than you could ever imagine. You'll remember more, you'll be able focus longer, you'll have loads of energy, and you'll feel sharper. The typical western diet has been a disaster for cognitive performance.
Tip #1 High glycemic carbohydrates bad, low glycemic carbohydrates good
Carbohydrates are vital to any poker player looking to maintain a high level of mental performance. Why? There are actually 3 reasons why every poker player should be getting adequate amounts of carbohydrates.
1) The brain relies almost entirely on glucose (the end-result of carbohydrate metabolism) as a source of fuel for energy. Unlike the rest of the cells of the body, the brain has a hard time utilizing amino acids and fatty acids as energy sources. Thus, maximum mental performance is almost entirely dependent on how much glucose is supplied to the brain for energy production.
2) The brain cells, neurons, cannot store glucose for later use as energy. If glucose is not available, the brain's mental performance declines almost in linear fashion.
3) The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body. That's in a normal person. For someone that plays poker for hours, the amount of mental energy needed is a lot greater.
Carbs are not created equal
It's important to note that not all carbohydrates are created equal when discussing mental performance. It has been shown in study after study that carbohydrates that have a high glycemic index do not improve mental performance as much as carbohydrates that have a low glycemic index. Side note: glycemic index is a fancy term used to describe the blood glucose levels resulting from the metabolism of a particular carbohydrate. Those foods that have a high glycemic index result in a larger amount of glucose in the blood compared to foods that have a low glycemic index. Why don't all carbohydrates affect mental performance the same? Insulin. Whenever a carbohydrate is metabolized by the body, the glucose that results in the blood stream is shuttled into the body's cells by insulin. Not only is too much glucose in the blood detrimental to the arteries themselves, but it also serves no use to the body. Energy can only be produced when glucose enters the cells. Glucose can only enter the cells with the help of insulin. Thus, think of insulin as Drain-O and glucose as the gunk that builds up in the pipes.
Insulin's dirty little secret
So what happens when you eat a food that has a high glycemic index? The pancreas in the body releases a large amount of insulin to clear the glucose from the blood stream. This is good and bad. It's good because a large amount of glucose doesn't build up in the blood stream causing a host of problems (think diabetes). It's also bad though because the brain needs a constant supply of glucose. Remember, the brain primarily uses glucose for energy and can't store it for later use. Thus, when you eat that doughnut or drink that can of soda or sugar-laden energy drink, you initially get a burst of energy because of the initial large supply of glucose. However, once insulin clears that glucose from the bloodstream, you become lethargic, your memory becomes foggy, you begin to lose your mental sharpness, etc. That's why after about an hour or so of consuming your precious energy drink, you suddenly hit a wall and are in desperate need of another shot.
Low glycemic carbohydrates to the rescue
So how can you prevent this? Well, there are three things you can do.
1) Consume carbohydrates that are low on the glycemic index. These carbohydrates include apples, pears, strawberries, cherries, almost any vegetable, or whole-grain foods. Do a simple search for the glycemic index and you can find a value for almost every food imaginable. Those foods provide almost a controlled release amount of glucose in the blood stream. Instead of the drastic changes associated with high glycemic carbs, you should get a nice steady supply of glucose for the brain. Avoid soft drinks, cookies, candy, bread, milk, and ice cream at all costs.
2) If you do happen to eat a high glycemic carbohydrate, consume it with some kind of a fat, preferably a healthy fat such as fish oil, almonds, cashews, etc. Fat slows the absorption of foods. Thus, high glycemic carbs won't rapidly increase the amount of glucose in the blood.
3) Eat foods high in fiber with your high glycemic carbs. Fiber, like fat, slows the absorption of nutrients. Vegetables are high in fiber. If nothing else, take some Metamucil with your junk food.
Why energy drinks aren't for poker
Hopefully after reading the above, you've realized that energy drinks are detrimental for maximum mental performance. While I was looking over the ingredients of the typical energy drinks, I noticed a common trend: large amounts of high glycemic carbohydrates. While this is great for situations that require a short burst of energy, it's awful for situations that require a long duration of energy. Poker isn't a sprint. Heck, it's not even a 1600 meter race. It's a marathon. It requires a constant supply of glucose over anywhere from 2-8 hours. These energy drinks cannot supply this constant amount adequately. Now I can hear many of you already, "Dr.T, I'll just drink a Red Bull every hour or so." Good in theory, but bad in practice. You'll experience too many highs and too many lows throughout the game. You will not be able to adequately monitor your blood glucose levels to determine when you need another shot of energy. You risk the chance of making a dumb mistake because of low blood sugar. Plus, it'll set you back around $20 or so (However, this is what the energy drink manufacturers want. Very smart I must say, almost like an addiction. Now I know why Red Bull had 4.2 billion dollars in sales in 2007). It'd make much more sense to have an apple or maybe even some celery throughout the game. If you need that extra boost, take a caffeine pill. A bottle of 100 will only cost you around $5. That combo will not only give you wings, but also a larger bank account.
Like I said above, I really just scratched the surface concerning carbohydrates and mental performance. There are numerous books, clinical studies, and articles that go into much more detail than I did. I could bore you with all of the pathophysiological mechanisms behind carbohydrates and energy, but I don't want you to fall asleep. This is a blog, not a textbook. If you'd like to read some studies or books concerning carbohydrates and energy, I'll be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
Point to remember: Avoid the spikes in blood glucose levels resulting from the consumption of high glycemic carbs commonly found in energy drinks, candy, etc. Think fruits and vegetables.