The following is taken, without permission, from Chapter 8, Boosting Brain & Body, of the excellent Being a Successful Interpreter by Jonathan Downie. It is an interview between the author and Kamil Celoch, a researcher in nutrition and conference interpreter. Please go and buy the whole book that I might be forgiven for using this extract here!
Eating your way to success
You are most well-known for your ongoing work on interpreter nutrition. Could you tell us how you got started in the subject?
As a former university-level athlete, I have always been interested in improving performance by any and all means at my disposal. What surprised me was that many of the lifestyle and dietary interventions yielded extremely positive changes on what could be widely defined as ‘cognition’. It could be argued that ‘you are what you eat’ is more than just a cliché — according to nutritionist Dr Mark Hyman, even if our genetic makeup plays an important role in how we feel and perform, environmental factors and nutrition are not to be underestimated as they can switch certain genes on and off, which in turn can have a host of downstream effects on our mood and cognitive performance. This seems to resonate with my experience as an interpreter — I feel and perform at my best when my diet is in check.
One of your most surprising findings was that caffeine, often seen as the interpret-er’s best friend, might actually be reducing our performance. Could you explain a bit more about this?
Caffeine is certainly an interesting drug. I think it important to note that coffee might have slightly different effects from pure caffeine found in energy drinks and pills, as coffee beans contain some other psychoactive alkaloids as well as antiox-idants. Therefore, some people might react better to isolated caffeine as opposed to coffee or even green tea, and likewise, the opposite can also be true for your average java lover. Sadly, it appears that if you want to rediscover that initial euphoric jolt, you might need to stop caffeine completely for at least a week. This is due to a built-up tolerance, which more coffee will not fix. I am willing to bet my left, now relatively caffeine-free kidney, that I am not the only interpreter who learned this the hard way. Unfortunately, cessation of caffeinated beverages is associated with rather nasty withdrawal symptoms, ranging from lethargy, apathy, and anxiety to reduced cognitive performance, which is why a lot of people prefer to stay in the state of dependence. After all, all you need is just a quick fix of your caffeinated poison of choice and you are ready to rock and roll again, a phenomenon that partly explains the addictiveproperties of the compound. Still, caffeine is relatively safe if consumed in moderation, it’s easy to obtain and therefore is conducive to support dependence. Many of us also enjoy the taste of coffee. Also, there is a plethora of research that shows that the propertihes of caffeine are synergistic with an amino acid theanine, especially within the realms of cognitive performance as it pertains to attention and subjective stress levels.
What would be a better way to replenish our energy levels and concentration capacity during an assignment?
I am afraid that once you get to ‘during’ stage, your options are rather limited. Sugar-laden snacks and energy thinks might be temporarily effective, but are likely to make you crash shortly after consumption. Small amounts of coconut oil, the other hand do not cause spikes in insulin levels but still ‘feed’ your brain and give you more steady energy levels. Deep breathing is klso another great strategy to ensure better performance andireduced stress levels by increasing oxygen levels to the brain. Due of bodily processes involved in achieving superior cognitive performance, one has to develop a holistic approach to address all of the following areas:
• Diet: reduce inflammation levels, normalise insulin sensitivity, and elimi. nate food sensitivities and/or allergies; increase intake of micronutfients and omega 3s
• Hormones: find and correct any deficiencies; reduce overall stress levels
•Neurotransmitter balance: high-protein diet to supply adequate amounts of amino acids; high intake of fruit and vegetables and micronutrients to support healthy enzymatic conversion
• Mitochondria: high-intensity interval training (such as sprinting or row-ing); limit toxin exposure and inflammation-induced excessive free-radical production
• Exercise: ideally at least 20 minutes every day, both anaerobic and aerobic exercise
• Rest: meditation; adequate amounts of sleep and naps whenever possible; learn how to unwind without the use of your computer/mobile screen
You have also researched the use of dietary supplements in interpreting. Are there any you specifically recommend?
Of course, it’s hard to make blanket statements, as we all have unique brain chemistries, but I would personally love to see research on tyrosine in an interpreting setting. This naturally occurring amino acid is a precursor to dopamine and its metabolites, and has shown a lot of promise in military research in improving in vigilance, stress response, as well as general well-being in sleep-deprived subjects. As you might be aware, one ARC study has found that burn-out rates in conference interpreters are higher than those of senior-level Israeli army officers. Some anec-dotal reports suggest that tyrosine indeed could be an effective tool for a language professional, however at this point we need more research to draw any conclusions. There are also some situation-specific supplements that have been shown to have a high degree of efficacy in the following areas:
• Fatigue: rhodiola rosea . Focus and attention: combination of theanine and caffeine. nicotine, tyrosin
• Chronic stress exposure: rhodiola rosea, bacopa monnieri
• Energy production: a combination of mitochondrial supplements: Alpha-lipoic acid, Acetyl-l-Carnitne, Creatine, Resveratrol, Co-Enzyme Q10 Magnesium
Some people seem to thrive on stimulants. Surprisingly, nicotine (not to be confused with cigarettes and tobacco) appears to be a potent cognitive enhancer.
In all your work, you clearly point out that interpreters should run any change in their diet past their doctors. Could you give us some examples of how some substances like gluten or caffeine might have different effects on different people?
Caffeine is an interesting example. Some people are slow metabolisers, and, in general those individuals do not do tolerate the compound all that well. If that wasn’t bad enough, it takes longer for the slow metabolisers to clear the caffeine out of their system — a classic double whammy: more side effects for longer! Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is more cunning in its ways due to a delayed onset of symptoms. So you eat your favourite croissant on Monday and might not get any symptoms until Wednesday or Thursday! Gluten sensitivity is also harder to pick up in diagnostic tests, since most of them check for full-blown allergies. You might want to consider going gluten free for a week and compare your energy and ‘concentration levels to determine how much, if any, impact this somewhat-hard-to-digest protein has on your well-being.
Do you think interpreters in different settings –such as court interpreters, conference interpreters, or medical interpreters — might have different nutritional needs?
In my view, nutritional needs should be reviewed on an individual basis, irrespective of occupation. Diet and resultant deficiencies are highly variable from person to person, and as such it would be next to impossible to extrapolate with any degree of certainty what nutritional needs an individual might have, let alone a roue of g professionals. I have a strong suspicion, however, that just like the majority of the population, interpreters would do well to increase their intake of magnesium in their diet, as it is one of the most common deficiencies. Zinc, vitamin D3, and vitamin K2 are also notoriously low in a typical Western diet.
Many interpreters travel a lot for assignments, and some may not have easy access to healthy food options. Could you perhaps suggest some portable snacks that might help them?
Beef jerky, nuts, rice cakes, nut butters, protein powder, fruit, hummus, boiled eggs, seeds, cocktail prawns, and leftovers of last night’s dinner are all good options. Remember to include moderate amounts of protein in each and every snack and drink ample amounts of water in between assignments to stay hydrated. Alternatively you could eat a more substantial, healthy meal every four to five hours if it fits your schedule. In this case you can forego the snacks.
Lastly, if you could suggest one single change that interpreters could make to their diet to improve their performance, what would it be?
Plan your meals ahead to avoid overreliance on sugary snacks — your body and mind will thank you later!