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June 09, 2005 05:49 PM
Mesmerizing Memory by Cal Orey Energy Times, January 1, 1999
In the 60s, the same rock 'n' rollers who belted out "One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small," often espoused the belief that certain pills could expand the mind. While counter-culture pill purveyors were pilloried for their pill-popping claims, 90s nutritional research has uncovered a stash of supplements that may amplify mental improvement.
Like a blues singer bending a high note, researchers are now humming with dramatic assertions that certain nutritional supplements can sustain and enhance concentration and memory function. For instance, studies reveal possible benefits for cognitive powers from vitamin C, magnesium and Ginkgo biloba. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 278:1327-1332) said that an extract of Ginkgo biloba "can stabilize and, in some cases, improve the cognitive function and social behavior of demented patients."
A researcher in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that a daily dose of vitamin E may "help protect the brain and its memories from the ravages of time." And the beat goes on: other evidence indicates that zinc, iron and boron may pump up short-term memory attention span and cut the time it takes to perform mental tasks.
Lester Packer, PhD, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, told a joint 1996 United Nations-World Health Organization conference on Aging that "there is a growing body of evidence indicating that the free radical theory of aging and aging-related disease is valid," and that dietary and supplemental antioxidants can help fight illness and mental deterioration.
Vitamin E and other memory aids are believed to protect brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, "the ferrymen of the brain's communication system," that influence concentration and memory. Experts say that sustaining the level of these nerve chemicals in the brain can potentially improve all mental processes.
Too much alcohol, for example, commonly causes progressive mental decline, according to Secrets of the Superyoung (Villard) by David Weeks and Jamie James. The authors also point out that "the memory tends to worsen noticeably after 15 years of alcohol drinking, and much sooner in people who go on massive binges."
"The effects of cigarette smoke are subtler because the poisonous effects of carbon monoxide in each puff are temporarily offset by the alerting effects of the nicotine," they add. Can't remember the name of that singer cavorting in a music video? Tests have shown that smokers are worse at connecting peoples' names to their faces than nonsmokers.
n Learn something new: A second language, musical instrument, or unique puzzles and games keep neurons working like new.
n Turn off the TV: Read. Studies show that passively watching TV requires less concentration than eating cereal. Mental rejuvenation also requires physical activity. Exercise increases oxygen flow to the brain, which supports memory, concentration and cognition. One study has shown that exercise significantly brightened the moods of middle-aged and older women, regardless of whether they were pre- or post-menopausal, with or without hormone replacement therapy.
Supplemental Brain Help
Antioxidants, including the previously mentioned vitamin E (You haven't forgotten vitamin E already, have you?), provide crucial help for vigorous cerebral function. The free radicals created by tobacco smoke, air pollution, ultraviolet light and certain carcinogenic chemicals deconstruct cell membranes and may foster microscopic brain cell havoc. Antioxidant enzymes convert free radicals to more neutral, benign substances and nutritional antioxidants can neutralize free radicals by linking up with them.
Vitamin C, a brainy antioxidant all star, performs so well that, according to Dr. Khalsa, its levels in the brain are almost 15 times higher than in other parts of the body. This nutrient, he asserts, aids mental and physical longevity. In a UCLA study, people who ingested at least 300 mg of vitamin C daily lived more than six years longer than those who ingested less.
Added to this mix, magnesium also scavenges free-radicals, according to Dr. Khalsa. Plus, experts recommend grape seed extract (phytochemicals that protect a wide range of cellular structures) to safeguard nerve cells and mental capacity.
B Vitamins for the Mind
Boron plays a crucial part in mental function. Scientists at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center have linked boron deficiencies to chronic lethargy and fatigue. In brain studies, they found that the electrical activity of the gray matter in the boron deficient indicated increased drowsiness and mental sluggishness.
HupA basically protects the brain from free radical damage (due to low levels of antioxidant defenses) and maintains or enhances crucial neurotransmitter action. More specifically, HupA helps reduce the breakdown of acetylcholine, the vital neurotransmitter, and makes this substance more bioavailable. In addition, HupA helps make choline accessible to the brain for the synthesis of acetylcholine, according to a study in Neuropharmacology (30, 1991: 763-768).
Normally, the brain manufactures sufficient levels of the chemical phosphatidylserine, a lecithin-derivative that helps boost neurotransmitter release, but deficiencies of vitamin B12 and folic acid, or of essential fatty acids, may retard that production. Low levels of phosphatidylserine in the brain are related to impaired mental function and depression in the elderly. Scientists reporting in Aging (5, 1993; 123-33) describe "good results" using phosphatidylserine in the treatment of age-related cognitive ills.
Ginkgo Brain Power
Another ingredient in what seems like an alphabet-soup of brain nourishment is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fat essential for normal brain function. Researchers met recently at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's Nutrition Information Center to discuss "Keeping Your Brain in Shape: New Insights into DHA." Their findings revealed links between low levels of DHA and Alzheimer's, depression, memory loss, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain behavioral traits including aggression and hostility.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health point out, however, that fish is an excellent dietary source of DHA. In their studies, they discovered that depression rates in Japan and Taiwan, where fish ranks a top spot on the menu, are significantly lower than in North America and Europe.
DHA also is crucial to the neurological development of children, according to findings published in Pediatrics (vol. 101, no. 1, January 1998). Researchers suggest that DHA-rich breast milk should be the model for infant formulas that enhance babies' neurological development. Scientists also have correlated some behavioral problems in children-ADHD, for example-to DHA deficiencies.
If you are a vegetarian, or have other cause for concern about a potential lack of DHA in your diet, you can rely on dietary supplementation of DHA. Bruce J. Holub, PhD, of the University of Guelph in Canada provided vegetarians in his research project with DHA supplements over a 42-day period and substantially increased their DHA blood levels.
The bottom line to enhanced mental performance is to take a balanced approach, says Robert Snider, MD, who specializes in preventive medicine in Massena, New York. "Maintaining brain power includes exercise, stress reduction and good nutrition." The message to keep in mind: Don't lose your nutritional balance or you could lose a piece of your peace of mind.
Recommended Reading: & Brain Builders (Reward Books, 1995), by Richard Leviton.
Brain Longevity (Warner Books, 1997), by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD.
Omega 3 Oils to Improve Mental Health, Fight Degenerative Diseases and Extend Life (Avery, 1996), by Donald Rudin, MD, and Clara Felix.
Successful Aging (Pantheon, 1998), by John W. Rowe, MD, and Robert L. Kahn, PhD.