Serotonin, Fatigue, Training, and Performance

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The fatigue produced by “over-training” is probably produced by a tryptophan and serotonin overload, resulting from catabolism of muscle proteins and stress-induced increases in serotonin. -Ray Peat, PhD

Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Aug;72(2 Suppl):573S-8S.
Serotonin and central nervous system fatigue: nutritional considerations.
Davis JM, Alderson NL, Welsh RS.
Fatigue from voluntary muscular effort is a complex phenomenon involving the central nervous system (CNS) and muscle. An understanding of the mechanisms within muscle that cause fatigue has led to the development of nutritional strategies to enhance performance. Until recently, little was known about CNS mechanisms of fatigue, even though the inability or unwillingness to generate and maintain central activation of muscle is the most likely explanation of fatigue for most people during normal daily activities. A possible role of nutrition in central fatigue is receiving more attention with the development of theories that provide a clue to its biological mechanisms. The focus is on the neurotransmitter serotonin [5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)] because of its role in depression, sensory perception, sleepiness, and mood. Nutritional strategies have been designed to alter the metabolism of brain 5-HT by affecting the availability of its amino acid precursor. Increases in brain 5-HT concentration and overall activity have been associated with increased physical and perhaps mental fatigue during endurance exercise. Carbohydrate (CHO) or branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) feedings may attenuate increases in 5-HT and improve performance. However, it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of CHO on the brain and those on the muscles themselves, and most studies involving BCAA show no performance benefits. It appears that important relations exist between brain 5-HT and central fatigue. Good theoretical rationale and data exist to support a beneficial role of CHO and BCAA on brain 5-HT and central fatigue, but the strength of evidence is presently weak.

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Jan;29(1):45-57.
Possible mechanisms of central nervous system fatigue during exercise.
Davis JM, Bailey SP.
Fatigue of voluntary muscular effort is a complex phenomenon. To date, relatively little attention has been placed on the role of the central nervous system (CNS) in fatigue during exercise despite the fact that the unwillingness to generate and maintain adequate CNS drive to the working muscle is the most likely explanation of fatigue for most people during normal activities. Several biological mechanisms have been proposed to explain CNS fatigue. Hypotheses have been developed for several neurotransmitters including serotonin (5-HT; 5-hydroxytryptamine), dopamine, and acetylcholine. The most prominent one involves an increase in 5-HT activity in various brain regions. Good evidence suggests that increases and decreases in brain 5-HT activity during prolonged exercise hasten and delay fatigue, respectively, and nutritional manipulations designed to attenuate brain 5-HT synthesis during prolonged exercise improve endurance performance. Other neuromodulators that may influence fatigue during exercise include cytokines and ammonia. Increases in several cytokines have been associated with reduced exercise tolerance associated with acute viral or bacterial infection. Accumulation of ammonia in the blood and brain during exercise could also negatively effect the CNS function and fatigue. Clearly fatigue during prolonged exercise is influenced by multiple CNS and peripheral factors. Further elucidation of how CNS influences affect fatigue is relevant for achieving optimal muscular performance in athletics as well as everyday life.

Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):25-34.
Amino acids and central fatigue.
Blomstrand E.
There is an increasing interest in the mechanisms behind central fatigue, particularly in relation to changes in brain monoamine metabolism and the influence of specific amino acids on fatigue. Several studies in experimental animals have shown that physical exercise increases the synthesis and metabolism of brain 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT). Support for the involvement of 5-HT in fatigue can be found in studies where the brain concentration of 5-HT has been altered by means of pharmacological agents. When the 5-HT level was elevated in this way the performance was impaired in both rats and human subjects, and in accordance with this a decrease in the 5-HT level caused an improvement in running performance in rats. The precursor of 5-HT is the amino acid tryptophan and the synthesis of 5-HT in the brain is thought to be regulated by the blood supply of free tryptophan in relation to other large neutral amino acids (including the branched-chain amino acids, BCAA) since these compete with tryptophan for transport into the brain. Studies in human subjects have shown that the plasma ratio of free tryptophan/BCAA increases during and, particularly, after sustained exercise. This would favour the transport of tryptophan into the brain and also the synthesis and release of 5-HT which may lead to central fatigue. Attempts have been made to influence the 5-HT level by giving BCAA to human subjects during different types of sustained heavy exercise. The results indicate that ingestion of BCAA reduces the perceived exertion and mental fatigue during exercise and improves cognitive performance after the exercise. In addition, in some situations ingestion of BCAA might also improve physical performance; during exercise in the heat or in a competitive race when the central component of fatigue is assumed to be more pronounced than in a laboratory experiment. However, more experiments are needed to further clarify the effect of BCAA and also of tryptophan ingestion on physical performance and mental fatigue.

Adv Exp Med Biol. 1995;384:315-20.
Tryptophan, 5-hydroxytryptamine and a possible explanation for central fatigue.
Newsholme EA, Blomstrand E.
In prolonged exercise the plasma level of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) may fall and that of fatty acid increases: the latter increases the free tryptophan level, so that the plasma concentration ratio, free tryptophan/BCAA may increase leading to higher levels of tryptophan and therefore of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) in brain. The latter increases the activity of some 5-HT neurons in the brain which can cause sleep and which could, therefore, increase the mental effort necessary to maintain athletic activity. Drinks containing branched-chain amino acids should restore vigor to athletes whose performance is depressed by an excess of cerebral 5-HT. Recent work suggests that intake of branched-chain amino acids may improve performance in slower runners in the marathon and decrease perceived physical and mental exertion in laboratory experiments. This suggestion is supported by pharmacological manipulations that result in either increased or decreased physical performance.

Brain Res Bull. 1997;43(1):43-6.
Changes in the albumin binding of tryptophan during postoperative recovery: a possible link with central fatigue?
Yamamoto T, Castell LM, Botella J, Powell H, Hall GM, Young A, Newsholme EA.
Erratum in
Brain Res Bull 1997;44(6):735.
Tryptophan is the precursor of the neurotransmitter 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), known to be involved in sleep and fatigue. In the blood, tryptophan binds to albumin, and that which does not, free tryptophan, competes with branched chain amino acids (BCAA) for entry into the brain. The plasma concentrations of albumin, free tryptophan, total tryptophan, and BCAA were measured before and after major surgery in nine elderly and nine coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) patients. In both the elderly and the CABG patients plasma free tryptophan concentrations were increased after surgery, compared with baseline levels; the plasma free tryptophan/BCAA concentration ratio was also increased significantly after surgery. Plasma albumin concentrations were decreased significantly after surgery in both the elderly and the CABG patients. Plasma BCAA concentrations were not affected by surgery in either group. The effect of exercising to exhaustion on 5-HT and tryptophan were investigated in Nagase analbuminemic rats (NAR). The intrasynaptosomal concentration of tryptophan, 5-hydroxy-tryptophan, and 5-HT was increased by fatigue after exercise. In addition, running time to exhaustion was shortened in NAR. These data suggest that free tryptophan uptake and 5-HT synthesis were enhanced in the nerve terminal. A decrease in plasma albumin may account for the increase in plasma-free tryptophan levels. An increase in plasma free tryptophan, resulting in an enhanced plasma concentration ratio of free tryptophan/BCAA, may lead to a higher 5-HT concentration in some parts of the brain and, consequently, to central fatigue. It is suggested that provision of BCAA as a dietary supplement may counteract the increase in plasma free tryptophan and thus improve the status of some patients after major surgery.

Adv Exp Med Biol. 1999;467:697-704.
The role of tryptophan in fatigue in different conditions of stress.
Castell LM, Yamamoto T, Phoenix J, Newsholme EA.
Tryptophan is the precursor for the neurotransmitter 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), which is involved in fatigue and sleep. It is present in bound and free from in the blood, where the concentration is controlled by albumin binding to tryptophan. An increase in plasma free tryptophan leads to an increased rate of entry of tryptophan into the brain. This should lead to a higher level of 5-HT which may cause central fatigue. Central fatigue is implicated in clinical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and post-operative fatigue. Increased plasma free tryptophan leads to an increase in the plasma concentration ratio of free tryptophan to the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) which compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain across the blood-brain barrier. The plasma concentrations of these amino acids were measured in chronic fatigue syndrome patients (CFS) before and after exercise (Castell et al., 1998), and in patients undergoing major surgery (Yamamoto et al., 1997). In the CFS patients, the pre-exercise concentration of plasma free tryptophan was higher than in controls (p < 0.05) but did not change during or after exercise. This might indicate an abnormally high level of brain 5-HT in CFS patients leading to persistent fatigue. In the control group, plasma free tryptophan was increased after maximal exercise (p < 0.001), returning towards baseline levels 60 min later. The apparent failure of the CFS patients to change the plasma free tryptophan concentration or the free tryptophan/BCAA ratio during exercise may indicate increased sensitivity of brain 5-HT receptors, as has been demonstrated in other studies (Cleare et al., 1995). In post-operative recovery after major surgery plasma free tryptophan concentrations were markedly increased compared with baseline levels; the plasma free tryptophan/BCAA concentration ratio was also increased after surgery. Plasma albumin concentrations were decreased after surgery: this may account for the increase in plasma free tryptophan levels. Provision of BCAA has improved mental performance in athletes after endurance exercise (Blomstrand et al., 1995, 1997). It is suggested that BCAA supplementation may help to counteract the effects of an increase in plasma free tryptophan, and may thus improve the status of patients during or after some clinically stressful conditions.

Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007 Aug;17 Suppl:S37-46.
Amino acids and the brain: do they play a role in “central fatigue”?
Meeusen R, Watson P.
It is clear that the cause of fatigue is complex, influenced by both events occurring in the periphery and the central nervous system (CNS). It has been suggested that exercise-induced changes in serotonin (5-HT), dopamine (DA), and noradrenaline (NA) concentrations contribute to the onset of fatigue during prolonged exercise. Serotonin has been linked to fatigue because of its documented role in sleep, feelings of lethargy and drowsiness, and loss of motivation, whereas increased DA and NA neurotransmission favors feelings of motivation, arousal, and reward. 5-HT has been shown to increase during acute exercise in running rats and to remain high at the point of fatigue. DA release is also elevated during exercise but appears to fall at exhaustion, a response that may be important in the fatigue process. The rates of 5-HT and DA/NA synthesis largely depend on the peripheral availability of the amino acids tryptophan (TRP) and tyrosine (TYR), with increased brain delivery increasing serotonergic and DA/NA activity, respectively. TRP, TYR, and the branched-chained amino acids (BCAAs) use the same transporter to pass through the blood-brain barrier, meaning that the plasma concentration ratio of these amino acids is thought to be a very important marker of neurotransmitter synthesis. Pharmacological manipulation of these neurotransmitter systems has provided support for an important role of the CNS in the development of fatigue. Work conducted over the last 20 y has focused on the possibility that manipulation of neurotransmitter precursors may delay the onset of fatigue. Although there is evidence that BCAA (to limit 5-HT synthesis) and TYR (to elevate brain DA/NA) ingestion can influence perceived exertion and some measures of mental performance, the results of several apparently well-controlled laboratory studies have yet to demonstrate a clear positive effect on exercise capacity or performance. There is good evidence that brain neurotransmitters can play a role in the development of fatigue during prolonged exercise, but nutritional manipulation of these systems through the provision of amino acids has proven largely unsuccessful.

J Sports Sci. 1995 Summer;13 Spec No:S49-53.
Central and peripheral factors in fatigue.
Davis JM.
The causes of fatigue during muscular exercise include factors that reside in the brain (central mechanisms) as well as the muscles themselves (peripheral mechanisms). Central fatigue is largely unexplored, but there is increasing evidence that increased brain serotonin (5-HT) can lead to central (mental) fatigue, thereby causing a deterioration in sport and exercise performance. Although there are also strong theoretical grounds for a beneficial role of nutrition in delaying central fatigue, the data are much more tenuous. Dietary supplementation with branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) in low doses produces small and probably inconsequential effects on peripheral markers of brain 5-HT synthesis (plasma free tryptophan/BCAA), whereas larger doses are likely to be unpalatable, reduce the absorption of water in the gut, and may increase potentially toxic ammonia concentrations in the plasma. Alternatively, carbohydrate supplementation results in large reductions in plasma free tryptophan/BCAA and exercise time to fatigue is significantly longer, but it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of carbohydrate feedings on central fatigue mechanisms and the well-established beneficial effects of carbohydrate supplements on the contracting muscle. These data support the exciting possibility that relationships exist among nutrition, brain neurochemistry and sport performance. However, while the evidence is intriguing and makes good intuitive sense, our knowledge in this area is rudimentary at best.

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