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Top Ten Back-to-School Edition: Brain Boosters

September 19th, 2008

Good nutrition and the right supplements can unlock more of your brain power.

Good nutrition and the right supplements can unlock more of your brain power.

With the summer just about behind us, the weather grows cooler and the days grow shorter as students of all ages try to get back into the swing of classes, tests, studying, reading and memorization.   Unfortunately for many, the sudden change in routine can leave them feeling physically and mentally sluggish, just when they need to be bright-eyed and mentally sharp.

That’s probably why we always receive a few emails around this time of year asking  about supplements to improve memory, concentration, verbal skills  and what some people describe as ‘mental energy’.   The good news is, yes, there are some great supplements you can start using right now. What’s the bad news?

The bad news is that although there are dozens of nutrients that can help, it’s impossible to predict which ones will benefit which person most; some trial-and-error is necessary.  This is due in part to how complex brain function really is, and the difficulty in knowing, on an individual personal basis, which specific aspects of brain function need more nutritional support and which do not.  This is why the feedback about some of these supplements is so variable and why that which worked for one person may not work for another. But none of these are good reasons to avoid using nutrition to boost your brainpower, it just means you should approach it in a systematic way.

So this special Back-to-School Top Ten highlights some of the best brain boosters along with a systematic way to approach trying and using them.  With a little experimentation you’ll find the right combination to unlock 100% of your brain power.

Brain boosting supplements work by affecting one or more aspects of brain function. One may work to increase or enhance blood flow. Another may improve the brain’s ability to meet its energy needs. This one enhances communication within the brain.  That one is used to maintain the integrity of critical brain structures like cell membranes.  Some qualify as essential nutrients, others are beneficial but not essential.  But it’s not possible to know which is most important for you at the outset.

Start by establishing a nutritional foundation that will cover your fundamental nutritional bases. All of the vitamins and most minerals also play some role in supporting brain function besides being nutrients you need anyway. Just using these first 3 supplements on this list consistently should produce noticeable improvements. Once you’ve been using them for a week or two, your body will be primed to respond better to other more brain-specific supplements. You should continue to use them on an ongoing basis regardless of what other brain boosters you end up using, if any.

It’s hard to say how you long you should use a supplement before making a determination about its effectiveness. Don’t look for immediate, drug-like effects, although there are some such as caffeine and amino acids that can produce results within a few hours of the first dose. With other supplements, 2-4 weeks of consistent use in accordance with the manufacturers directions is a reasonable amount of time to allow before gauging any improvement.

1) Multivitamin.   This will cover all of your vitamin and most of your mineral bases. Just about everything in a multivitamin contributes to brain function in some way. Actually, many people experience improvements in mental function and mood just by taking a good multi, and nothing else than that.

2) Fish oil. You can’t say enough about the benefits or nutritional importance of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Most of their acclaim relates to heart health, but omega-3′s are critical brain nutrients too.  Among other things, they’re incorporated into brain cell membranes improving their many functions, including communication with the rest of the nervous system. When these parameters improve, you experience this as a clearer state-of-mind and improved mood.

3)  Whey protein shakes. Whey protein shakes provide all essential amino acids in an extremely easily-digested and fast-absorbing form. Amino acids are needed on a constant basis by the brain for a wide range of functions such as the manufacture of communication molecules (neurotransmitters) as well as removing toxic wastes like ammonia.

Ginkgo biloba.

Ginkgo biloba.

4) Ginkgo biloba. This herb has been around a long, long time; fossil records date back 270 million years.  That should tell you something right there. But the interest in Ginkgo as a brain booster relates to its ability to improve blood flow within the brain. More blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients delivered to highly active brain cells, and better removal of wastes. Ginkgo biloba extracts are probably the best known and best-studied of all the brain boosters.  This is a good next-product-to-try once you’ve been taking a multi, fish oil and whey shakes for a few weeks. Ginkgo seem to work better as the age of the user increases, but then again many of our college-aged customers buy Ginkgo on an ongoing repeat basis, so we’re sure it’s working well for at least some younger people too.

5) Acetyl-L-carnitine. Whereas gingko boosts brainpower by improving blood flow within the brain, acetyl-L-carnitine (aka ALCAR) works by enhancing the production of energy within brain cells.  This is a good product for improving ‘mental energy’ and the ability to concentrate or work on something for an extended period of time.

6) Phosphatidylserine (PS). Like fish oil, PS is incorporated into the most important part of the brain cell, its membrane, where it improves functional and structural integrity.  That’s important because it’s only through the membrane that the brain cell is able to send and receive messages. Phosphatidyl serine, like most products in this list, has the support of a considerable body of research behind it, especially with respect to the elderly.

7) Huperzine. Huperzine is rather unlike anything else in this list in terms of its function.  You only use it for short period of time usually two weeks. After the first few days of use, it really increases mental energy and focus to the point where we sometimes wonder why it’s not more popular. It could certainly use a catchier name. But huperzine, extracted from a species of moss, is able to inhibit an enzyme that would otherwise break down acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a crucial  neurotransmitter molecule central to many brain functions.

8 ) Phenylalanine or Tyrosine. Either of these amino acids can be used by the brain to increase levels of neurotransmitters associated with alertness and assertiveness. Best to take these on an empty stomach immediately upon arising, then waiting 30-40 minutes before consuming anything else. Phenylalanine has at times been used to treat conditions like depression, phobias and stage fright.

9) Vinpocetine. Vinpocetine is an extract of the periwinkle herb. It works something like ginkgo in that it also increases blood flow within the brain, leading some good-responders to refer to it as ‘viagra for the brain’. That may be overstating it, but our impression is that people certainly do respond better and more quickly to vinpocetine than ginkgo biloba.

10) Caffeine. Caffeine has gotten a bad rap because it is so easily overused or even abused. But let the record show that caffeine has an excellent safety record and very legitimate claims as a brain booster by increasing alertness and mental performance while decreasing fatigue. The trick to using caffeine as a brain booster is not using too much, and especially not using too much at one time. Small doses of caffeine spaced out over several hours are a very effective way to keep the back-to-school student from, well, spacing out.  Just don’t mix caffeine with sugar, or you set yourself up for a major energy crash.

Don’t forget to take products just as directed for best results. And don’t overlook two other factors that will drag down your brain power in very short order; sleep and sugar. You absolutely need adequate sleep to maximize your brain power and you absolutely want to eliminate all added sugar to your diet.  Sugary snacks and drinks wreak havoc on your body’s attempt to create balanced and sustained mental and physical energy, you don’t need them or want them if you’re trying to maximize your brain power.

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