Natural Mental Enhancement
by Stephen Terrass
The field of natural medicine has uncovered benefits to nutritional and herbal supplementation which pertain to countless different health needs. There are programmes for boosting the immune system, strengthening the cardiovascular system, treating allergies, correcting joint and skeletal disorders, and so on. Many people will seek the help of such programmes should they have a problem in a particular area, but there is one category which most everyone is interested in whether they have a problem or not - improving mental performance. Improving memory; increasing alertness; enhancing intelligence; preventing senility, and so on. Many people seek these goals due to the demands of their career or lifestyle. Others are just curious to see whether their mental functioning can be enhanced.
While to many this area may seem like nothing but a gimmick, the truth is that there is an enormous quantity of medical and scientific research which proves that age-related loss of mental abilities can be prevented or even reversed under certain circumstances. Research also shows that one's existing mental function can be enhanced even while they are still young. Even better is the fact that this can be accomplished without the use of harmful drugs or severe side effects.
The ability to improve mental functioning, also known as cognitive enhancement, can involve various mechanisms such as:
Over the last few years, a great deal of publicity has surfaced about a group of pharmaceutical medicines which have reputed cognitive enhancing effects. These agents, often called smart drugs have since become the object of much research - and with astoundingly impressive results. What is less known is the fact that at the same time, a great deal of impressive research was being published into the benefits of non-drug therapies for cognitive enhancement which involve the use of various nutrients and herbs.
Much of the activity of the brain is initiated and regulated by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters play a part in alertness, memory, sleep patterns, mood, concentration, reflexes, co-ordination, general nerve and muscle function, cardiovascular function, and so on. As a result, both mental and physical function can be hindered by a lack of neurotransmitters or improved by an balanced supply. Some neurotransmitters are classed as stimulatory. This type triggers a higher rate of nerve cell activity in the brain. Others are known as inhibitory neurotransmitters, which reduce the level of nerve cell activity.
Although the administration of certain neurotransmitters has been used as a drug treatment for mental or psychological disorders such as depression, this approach is not without side effects and risk of dependency. On the other hand, the use of the dietary compounds which convert into neurotransmitters are generally considered very safe and non-habit forming. Various amino acids are converted into certain neurotransmitters as are combinations of vitamins and other nutritional factors.
l-phenylalanine and l-tyrosine
The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are dietary precursors to the important stimulatory neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline. Among other functions, this neurotransmitter is partly responsible for an elevation in mental alertness, mood and ambition. Deficiencies in these amino acids would result in impaired mental and psychological functioning, and indeed, research has shown these amino acids to have anti-depressant effects. In addition, researchers have reported the potential of these amino acids to improve memory and suppress the appetite. It should be noted that vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is needed in order to convert these amino acids into their corresponding neurotransmitters. Although the use of l-phenylalanine and l-tyrosine is considered very safe, it is generally recommended to avoid supplementing these if you have high blood pressure.
L-glutamine is another example of an amino acid with substantial benefits to mental functioning. Other than glucose, a stimulatory neurotransmitter known as glutamic acid can be used as an energy source by the brain. Glutamic acid, which is sometimes called a 'brain food' is derived from dietary l-glutamine. The conversion of glutamine to glutamic acid is made in the brain itself after successfully passing the blood-brain barrier. Aside from generally providing an energy source for the brain to function at a higher level, glutamic acid is thought to play a role in mental alertness and perhaps even memory enhancement. It is logical to assume that it would be more effective to use the active substance itself, glutamic acid, rather than its precursor, l-glutamine; however, there is evidence to show that glutamic acid does not readily pass through the blood-brain barrier, while glutamine is passes through very easily. As with phenylalanine and tyrosine, vitamin B6 is needed for the utilisation of glutamine.
The nutrient phosphatidyl choline is a component of the phospholipid known as lecithin. Phosphatidyl choline is needed in order to make another vital stimulatory neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays a major role in many functions of the brain such as memory and learning abilities as well as alertness. In addition to these properties, acetylcholine is needed for proper nerve and muscle control throughout the body. Although the basic form of choline can be used to make acetylcholine, phosphatidyl choline is more efficient in this purpose. The B-vitamin pantothenic acid is needed for the conversion of phosphatidyl choline into acetylcholine. Phosphatidyl choline is very safe, but large amounts should be avoided by those suffering with manic depression.
One of the most exciting discoveries in the area of cognitive enhancement is the natural substance known as acetyl l-carnitine. This is a derivative of the amino acid-like nutrient l-carnitine. Carnitine is well known as a beneficial nutrient for the cardiovascular system, especially due to its ability to strengthen the heart and reduce cholesterol and triglycerides. Carnitine facilitates the entry of fats into the mitochondria of cells to be burned for energy.
The acetyl form of l-carnitine has these attributes, as well as remarkable effects on mental function. Among other benefits, many dozens of clinical trials have found acetyl l-carnitine to reverse age-related memory loss; successfully treat depression in the elderly; improve blood flow to the brain; and even to successfully treat symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. Although most of the research has been on elderly patients, acetyl l-carnitine has been shown to improve mental performance and reflex speed in young, healthy adults as well.
In general the results of the research has been very impressive, and although the dosages used were generally quite high, the acetyl l-carnitine did not have a high risk of side effects or toxicity.
Research has shown that a nutrient called phosphatidylserine also enhances mental abilities in both young and old. Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid found in brain cell membranes. Phosphatidylserine is a very heavily researched substance, and much of the research relates to its role in cognitive function.
Memory enhancement and improvement of learning abilities have been shown with administration of phosphatidylserine in healthy, normal adults. In the elderly, reversing depression and symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease have been noted, as well as a general increase in mental capabilities.
There are a few actions of phosphatidylserine which appear to account for these benefits. First of all, it seems to increase the number of acetylcholine receptors in the brain. As mentioned earlier, acetylcholine is very important in memory as well as alertness and learning. Phosphatidylserine also enhances glucose metabolism (the brain's main energy source), and acts as a 'detergent' which helps prevent adverse changes in the constitution of cell membranes and lipids.
Even in very high doses the only occasional side effect reported was mild nausea, however it is noted that it should not be combined with prescribed anti-coagulants.
A natural substance which has been shown to increase the production of acetylcholine is the nutrient DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol). DMAE occurs naturally in certain types of seafood. When supplemented in higher doses, been found to enhance memory and learning capabilities. It has also been shown to improve mood and improve sleep patterns. DMAE appears to provide a mild stimulant effect which does not cause a noticeable 'let down' if one stops taking it.
Although DMAE is generally considered to be very safe, excessive dosage can cause headaches, tenseness and insomnia. Supplemental use of DMAE should be avoided by manic depressive individuals.
One of the most talked about herbs of this decade is ginkgo biloba. An extract of ginkgo containing 24% flavone glycosides (the herb's active flavonoids) has been found to enhance mental functioning both in the young and old. There are several mechanisms by which ginkgo exerts its beneficial effect on mental functioning.
First of all, ginkgo is known to improve circulation to the brain. It appears to initiate vasodilatation (opening of the blood vessels) in the capillaries, which accounts for the increased blood flow and thus an increased levels of oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells. Lack of brain oxygen is one of the main contributors to loss of mental performance, especially in the elderly. Nerve transmission sites (neurons) are especially harmed by lack of oxygen (hypoxia). Ginkgo extracts enhance nerve transmission in the brain and improve the production and usage of neurotransmitters within the brain. There is a particular benefit in the case of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, as ginkgo facilitates its receptors in a particular portion of the brain called the hippocampus. The damage to brain cells and ultimately to mental performance can occur due to many influences, but one of the most detrimental is the destruction caused by free radicals, highly reactive molecules or fragments of molecules which interfere with cellular functions. Ginkgo components are known to act as powerful antioxidants in the brain, thereby scavenging free radicals which otherwise would cause premature death of cells. In addition, ginkgo biloba promotes the more efficient metabolism of glucose, the brain's major source of energy. These are just some of the benefits attributed to this incredible herb.
The end result of these actions means an improvement in the performance of the brain. There are many studies published in scientific journals which confirm these effects. It is generally understood that the use of ginkgo would have the most profound effects in those with age-related decline of mental functioning. Indeed, clinical trials with the elderly showed significant improvement in alertness and general mental performance. It was noted that these benefits were reflected in the behaviour of those taking part in the research trials. Interestingly there is a study which showed that reaction time in a memorisation test was greatly enhanced in young women after ginkgo administration.
There are many other nutrients and herbs which have attributes which are beneficial to cognitive performance, but the above are some of the most heavily researched. Because so many different substances are needed for optimal function of the brain, it is advisable to ensure adequate intake of all essential nutrients.
It should also be noted that it is not only important to know what you can take to improve mental function; it is also important to avoid those things which have adverse effect of cognitive performance. Poor diet in general must be the main focus, but with a special emphasis on avoidance or reducing the intake of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar. Many people are aware of the adverse effect of alcohol on the brain, but this is not just shortly after drinking. Even in what some would consider moderate quantities, the regular use of alcohol may have lasting negative effects on mental function. Although stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and sugar appear to enhance mental activity, this effect is only temporary and is strictly stimulant in nature. They do not improve overall mental strength, nor general intelligence. In the long term they may even be detrimental by causing the depletion of important brain nutrients and by exhausting the supply of certain neurotransmitters.
For the best results in enhancing cognitive function, a combined approach appears to be the most sensible. This might involve an overall improvement in dietary habits; avoiding or reducing the intake of alcohol and stimulants; basic supplementation to provide more optimal levels of essential nutrients; and the sensible use of any cognitive enhancing agents mentioned above which are appropriate for one's individual circumstances.
copyright 1995 VITAM - Barcelona, Spain 1995