Hacking the Cortex: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

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Last week, Josh Simpson asked a question about staying sharp and on your feet for the duration of a long day of tournament games.  There are a number of factors involved, and I’ll be looking at them all over the next little while, but today I’ll be looking at one of the least discussed – what you should eat on the day of a tournament to maximize concentration.

The work done by the brain accounts for 10-20% of the body’s energy consumption (Though, notably, still requires 800,000 times less than the world’s best supercomputer, and does twice as many FLOPs). Neurons are in a constant state of metabolic activity, continuing to do work even while you sleep, and spend a whole lot of energy shooting lightning at each other.

You think by making lightning inside your skull. It was awesome to me as an eight year old, and it’s still awesome now.

In order to do all of that hard work, the brain requires glucose. Glucose is the only thing which the brain burns for energy, and low levels of circulating glucose are associated with loss of concentration and memory function. As such, on the most basic level, to maintain the ability to think clearly through a day of Warmachine, you need to keep a steady level of glucose.

The best foods for this are complex carbohydrates. They are long chains of sugar molecules which the body breaks down into glucose over time, meaning there is a steady release of energy. You want to start the day with a good breakfast containing a lot of these, so turn to natural foods – bagels, bananas, porridge, or muesli. Or some combination of the above. You want to add some protein to the mix as well, and just for sheer deliciousness I suggest a Canadian Breakfast – fried banana, bacon, and pancakes. It has all of the above, and is way more awesome than I could ever have predicted (For best results, make the pancakes yourself and use less processed ingredients ).

It’s also important to maintain your levels of blood sugar throughout the day. Spiking high or low isn’t just for dice, and very high or very low blood sugar also impacts your concentration. Low blood sugar deprives the brain of energy, while high blood sugar causes insulin production to spike, pulling sugar out of the bloodstream for storage.

To avoid low blood sugar, snack throughout the day. Your best foods here are nuts and dried fruit, and (depending again on the amount of processed sugar involved) chocolate. Dark chocolate is best as it is generally less processed.

Many of us turn to foods with a lot of processed sugar in them for an energy kick, but because they trigger insulin production, they’re a bad long term prospect. The initial high wears off fast, and high insulin levels mean that you’ve probably worked yourself closer to a crash. Because of that, I’d recommend avoiding sweets and soft drinks as your energy fixers. To add to the Bad News for soft drink drinkers, they reduce the amount of pure water you tend to drink, which can lead to dehydration.

Don’t get dehydrated. Shockingly, water is best. You need about 1.5 L over the course of the day, and it’s best to drink it at a steady rate.

And while we’re on the subject of what to drink,  lets look at caffeine. Caffeine has been shown to boost cognitive performance. On the down side, it can lead to dehydration and you peeing a lot more. And vibrating so fast you can see alternate dimensions, which is not conducive to effective use of your clock. But in moderation, it’s a tried, tested, and empirically proven cognitive enhancer. On average, 20mg/hr is an effective dose for increasing wakefulness. The amount of caffeine in a coffee is wildly variable, and effected by so many variables that there’s no set in stone number, but a rough median is 80mg/cup. So really, you should be drinking 1/4 of a cup of coffee per hour (or 1/4 of an energy drink) for maximum effectiveness and minimal jitters.

As a random aside, doses of 600mg or more have been found to produce significant cognitive enhancement in some individuals. If you’re feeling experimental and need to good into the tank one last time, slamming 8 and a half cans of Red Bull may work. Or may cause you to vibrate to Earth 2. Or die. I just provide the information, I don’t tell you how to use it…

Your lunch should generally avoid foods made with white flour as well, since they take a long time to digest and break down, and tend to also make you sleepy as a result. Omega 3 fatty acids (from fish) and Iron (spinach, red meat, green vegetables in general, and eggs) are all good for brain performance, though I’m not aware of any evidence that says that effect happens “on the day”. But they’re all good for you and you should eat more, and make for an excellent mid day meal when doing Brain Work. It also has the advantage of being a pretty doable “packed lunch” if you’re in a venue that doesn’t offer the food you want, which is often a problem.

All the research also says it’s probably a bad idea to be drinking the night before.

But I’m not going to tell anyone to make promises I can’t keep. #booziestteamaward #wtc #notreinforcingnationalstereotypesatall

Te Nosce,



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Edited for corrections re: Turkey (not as sleepy making as I understood) and for the Latin in the title, because I live to give Siskey reasons to use his Latin Powers.

10 thoughts on “Hacking the Cortex: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

  1. Turkey has such a small amount of tryptophan in it that you would need to eat several whole turkeys in order to feel the sleepyness from just the tryptophan.

    The reason people feel so tired after Thanksgiving is because we generally consume enough calories in one sitting for a full day. That causes your body to go into full on digestion mode, drawing as much blood to your stomach as it can, this slightly deprives the rest of your body, most notably your brain, of a small amount of blood. The end result of all the blood rushing to your stomach to aid in digestion and transport of nutrients is that you get really really sleepy.

  2. Lol, good stuff! I’m not sure I’m willing to try the 600mg of caffeine experiment, but I have noticed a link between failing to drink at least my minimal 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning and sucking fantastically at warmachine. I do drink an impressive amount of coffee generally, a relic of my Navy days. I should probably not disrupt that pattern when playing warmachine.

    May experiment with grabbing a hearty breakfast of neat and some bread product (not a pancake guy, generally), though. Last con it was yogurt, cereal, and some sausage, which was still more than the coffee plus cigarettes breakfast I normally consume. Might invest in some trail mix, too.

    Keep up the good info!

      • Lessee, that’s roughly 7 and a half cups of coffee… I think I’ve come close to consuming that much in the span of an hour or so. I’m pretty sure I was able to briefly see Cthulu in the spaces between spaces and able to power a small Midwest town by the vibrations of my body. Possibly followed by the longest time spent in front of a urinal by anyone not a mannequin.

  3. Really good post. I’ve always found my essential snacks for a tournament include at least water (about 2Ls) and a couple of pieces of fruit. I start the day with a porridge supplemented with seeds and for lunch I try to bring a wrap/yoghurt. Performing well in a tournament is a feat of stamina – fuel your body and brain accordingly!

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