“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.
Is lifestyle truly important, though? According to Dr. Lisa, "genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger." As someone who grew up very aware of my genetic predisposition (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer — you name it and someone in my family has it), I always thought that this weighed heavily on whether or not someone manifests an illness. But, groundbreaking research on epigenetics actually states the contrary.
Avocados. Avocados are almost as good as blueberries in promoting brain health, says Pratt. "I don't think the avocado gets its due," agrees Kulze. True, the avocado is a fatty fruit, but, says Kulze, it's a monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow. "And healthy blood flow means a healthy brain," she says. Avocados also lower blood pressure, says Pratt, and as hypertension is a risk factor for the decline in cognitive abilities, a lower blood pressure should promote brain health. Avocados are high in calories, however, so Kulze suggests adding just 1/4 to 1/2 of an avocado to one daily meal as a side dish.
The available literature on cognitive enhancing practices at times appears to lump together nootropics and “smart drugs.” Smart drugs are not officially defined, but references to this group generally include Provigil (modafinil), Adderall and Ritalin. Any confusion about the addiction potential of different brain-enhancing drugs can spread misinformation about the individual drugs. There are many nootropics on the market, so the best practice is to focus on the addiction potential of each nootropic of interest or concern.
Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).
Methylphenidate was accepted into medical practice in 1960 as a way to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. It works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine into the nervous system, causing a flooding of dopamine and norepinephrine in the synapse between the nerves, which in turn leads to amplified signaling between neurons. It’s been said that these effects are basically the same as those of amphetamines (see more details below), which are synthetic, addictive, mood-altering drugs, used illegally in sports as a stimulant and also legally as a prescription drug – like Ritalin – to treat children with ADD and adults with narcolepsy.
Apart from the risks that accompany drugs with dopaminergic effects, amphetamines, even when used to treat neurological disorders like ADHD, have been known to frequently and predictably cause anorexia, weight loss and insomnia. High doses can cause psychotic behavior, and even normal doses have been known to produce psychosis that ranged from the loss of short-term memory to horrific visual and auditory hallucinations. Are you getting the impression that using synthetic stimulants to flood your brain short-term with excessive or unnaturally high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters may not be a good idea, especially when done frequently or in excess?
When it comes to brain power, greens should be on your plate (and cover a lot of that plate) every meal. “Leafy greens are a great base. You swap out a lot of the empty carbohydrates you get from things like pastas or breads, and you can use some leafy greens,” says Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, author of The Happiness Diet and Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients That Fuel Brainpower, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health. “Again, just lots of nutrient density.”
Thursday: 3g piracetam/4g choline bitartrate at 1; 1 200mg modafinil at 2:20; noticed a leveling of fatigue by 3:30; dry eyes? no bad after taste or anything. a little light-headed by 4:30, but mentally clear and focused. wonder if light-headedness is due simply to missing lunch and not modafinil. 5:43: noticed my foot jiggling - doesn’t usually jiggle while in piracetam/choline. 7:30: starting feeling a bit jittery & manic - not much or to a problematic level but definitely noticeable; but then, that often happens when I miss lunch & dinner. 12:30: bedtime. Can’t sleep even with 3mg of melatonin! Subjectively, I toss & turn (in part thanks to my cat) until 4:30, when I really wake up. I hang around bed for another hour & then give up & get up. After a shower, I feel fairly normal, strangely, though not as good as if I had truly slept 8 hours. The lesson here is to pay attention to wikipedia when it says the half-life is 12-15 hours! About 6AM I take 200mg; all the way up to 2pm I feel increasingly less energetic and unfocused, though when I do apply myself I think as well as ever. Not fixed by food or tea or piracetam/choline. I want to be up until midnight, so I take half a pill of 100mg and chew it (since I’m not planning on staying up all night and I want it to work relatively soon). From 4-12PM, I notice that today as well my heart rate is elevated; I measure it a few times and it seems to average to ~70BPM, which is higher than normal, but not high enough to concern me. I stay up to midnight fine, take 3mg of melatonin at 12:30, and have no trouble sleeping; I think I fall asleep around 1. Alarm goes off at 6, I get up at 7:15 and take the other 100mg. Only 100mg/half-a-pill because I don’t want to leave the half laying around in the open, and I’m curious whether 100mg + ~5 hours of sleep will be enough after the last 2 days. Maybe next weekend I’ll just go without sleep entirely to see what my limits are.
Although research linking diet and dementia is still in its infancy, there are a few important relationships between nutrients and brain health that are worth exploring. Having a nourishing, well rounded diet gives our brain the best chance of avoiding disease. If your diet is unbalanced for whatever reason, you may want to consider a multivitamin and mineral complex and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help make up a few of the essentials. If you are considering taking a supplement it is best to discuss this with your GP or qualified healthcare professional.
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."