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Cognitive Enhancers From Easy to Out There

Pretty much every episode of Smart Drug Smarts covers yet another way to make your brain even better and healthier.  Some are things you’re already doing, some are things you’ve heard about but haven’t tried, and some are things you never even knew were cognitive enhancers (methylene blue, anyone?).

So, just how dedicated are you to improving your brain? Pick your poison (errr…  cure for lackluster gray matter) — we’ve got options from easy, like blueberries, to out there, like DMT.

Easy Cognitive Enhancers

Alpha-GPC

Want better memory and focus and a longer attention span?

One option to make sure you’re getting enough choline.  Choline is an essential precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays essential roles in activating muscles, attention, responsiveness to sensory stimuli, motivation, learning, memory, and REM sleep.

Alpha-GPC is a great source of choline because it has a large amount of choline by weight (it’s 40% choline) and is very polar, so passes through the blood-brain barrier easily.  It’s also extremely safe – fewer than 1% of people experience side effects, with the most common being upset stomach and headache.

If you’re ready to start taking Alpha-GPC, the recommended dose is 200mg per day.

Blueberries

You’re probably already eating blueberries.  And if you’re aren’t, well why the heck not?!

It shouldn’t take much convincing:  Not only are they delicious, but they are also fantastic for your brain.  They boost long-term memory, short-term memory (aka working memory), and access to words and concepts.  They reverse loss of balance and coordination in older rats and improve memory and concentration in children.

Inspired to eat more blueberries?  There isn’t a magic amount, but eating half a cup of blueberries a few times a week should give you all the benefits.  Look for:  fresh, whole blueberries, frozen fruit, 100% pure blueberry juice (no concentrates), or freeze-dried blueberry powder.  Avoid:  juices with added sugar or that are made from concentrate and baked or cooked blueberries, since exposure to heat degrades flavonoids.

Melatonin

Melatonin, the sleep hormone, makes you fall and stay asleep.  Environmental levels of lightness affect your circadian rhythm, which, in turn, affects melatonin production, so that melatonin is actively produced at night, when it’s dark.

Among other indignities that occur as you age, your pineal gland is calcifying, meaning it’s producing less melatonin at night.  This is why older adults have a hard time staying asleep — they produce enough melatonin to fall asleep, but not enough to stay asleep throughout the night.

Melatonin is very safe (it’s something your own body produces after all), but taking the right dose is tricky.  The ideal dose — 0.3mg — of melatonin is very small, which is quickly metabolized by your body.  So if you take 0.3 mg of melatonin before bed, you’ll fall asleep easily, but it won’t be enough to keep you asleep throughout the night.

So what should you do?  Look for pills with between 0.3 – 1mg of melatonin and try to find a time release option, like this time-release melatonin supplement, so that your body is exposed to low levels of melatonin throughout the night.

What you should not do is take a megadose of melatonin.  Many companies sell pills of 3mg and higher, which is 10x the recommended dose.  There’s no danger of overdosing, but you’ll blow out your melatonin receptors, meaning that melatonin supplements will stop being effective.

Gratitude

Ah, gratitude.  It’s one of the buzzwords of the moment, it seems. But turns out those hippies were on to something.

Regularly practicing gratitude has a host of benefits, including better interpersonal relationships, faster recovery from heart surgery, better sleep quality and duration, fewer PTSD symptoms, and protection against future cognitive trauma.  And the most incredible benefit:  living up to 10 years longer.

Here’s how to get the benefits of gratitude:

  • Small doses of regular gratitude are better than occasional big bursts of gratitude (think buying someone flowers vs. an expensive piece of jewelry).
  • Write thank you notes and give them to people who aren’t expecting them.
  • Keep a weekly gratitude journal.  It’s actually more effective than a daily one.
  • Focus on what you’re grateful for, and let go of small, daily annoyances.
  • Notice small things people have done to give you a better life, like running water, a working car, or a good cup of coffee.
  • Take a moment in transition times, like while waiting for the coffee to brew, to focus on gratitude for 30 seconds.

Unconventional Brain Boosts

Ketosis

Who knew that fat could be so good for you?  Ketosis a state in which your brain draws energy from ketone bodies, instead of glucose, its usual energy-source.  Being in ketosis makes you feel more lucid and your thinking sharper, and who wouldn’t want that?

So, here’s how to get in ketosis, according to Dr. Dominic D’Agostino:

  • Follow a modified ketogenic diet, with 65-70% of calories coming from fat.
  • Consume 150-200g fiber per day.
  • Start intermittent fasting.
  • Spend time out in the sun.
  • Take MCT oil and ketone salts.
  • Finally, supplement with 4-8g of salt and magnesium before bed.  This isn’t going to put you into ketosis, but will make sure your body has everything it needs while you’re in that state.

Nicotine

Nicotine has a reputation as an evil drug that’s not entirely deserved.  Granted, smoking cigarettes is really awful, but nicotine is only one of 500 – 700 chemicals in tobacco (which turn into more than 7,000 when tobacco is smoked).

The unique thing about nicotine as a smart drug is that it’s both a stimulant and a relaxant — it keeps you alert when you’re tired, but calms you down when you’re stressed.  It also increases focus, helps you sustain attention, controls hunger, and reduces pain.

But, there is a catch.  It’s really addictive.  More addictive than heroin, actually.  And, long term use causes blood vessels to constrict, which is no bueno for your heart.

Verdict:  if you want to try nicotine, use the patch or nicotine gum, and don’t use it every day.

Hypnosis

Does hypnosis seem a bit woo-woo to you?  Well, get over it, because hypnosis has real, concrete benefits, including:  controlling pain, reducing swelling and other signs of physical trauma, improving cognitive performance, and changing the way we are able to use our brains.

Even better:  you can learn to hypnotize yourself for all these benefits.  Of course, if you have no experience with hypnosis, getting started with a trained professional can make things easier.  And once someone has helped take you into an experience of hypnosis, it will be easier for you to return to that state of mind on your own.

Reality check:  Unfortunately, although all children are hypnotizable, only two-thirds of adults are.  So if you’re in the non-hypnotizable group, keep reading for a different brain boost to try.

Out There Mental Maximizers

Psychedelics

We got to talk to two psychedelics experts Dr. Dennis McKenna and Dr. Rick Strassman about natural psychedelics and DMT, respectively.  Psychedelics are under a lot of misconceptions, but they have therapeutic potential we’re only just beginning to understand.  And besides being possible treatments for everything from PTSD to depression, psychedelics can boost creativity and lead to new ways of thinking for healthy users.

Curious about trying psychedelics?  Here’s Dr. McKenna’s recommendations:

  • Do your research.  Start with Erowid.org, the best online resource on psychedelics.  Find out what to expect from a trip, how long it will last, and any contraindications.
  • Start with the smallest active dose possible.  See how it goes.  You can always take more next time.
  • Make sure you’re in a positive mindset and in a safe and comfortable place, preferably with a sober babysitter if you’re new to psychedelics.
  • Avoid psychedelics if:  you’re on SSRIs, you have a genetic proclivity to schizophrenia, you have an underlying mental illness, or you’re in a fragile psychological place.
  • Relax and be open to the experience!

Methylene Blue

Here’s a weird cognitive enhancer:  methylene blue, which has been used as a textile dye and a parasite treatment for fish.

But it’s so much more than that.  It’s a memory enhancer, antioxidant, and neuroprotectant.  It improves the oxygen consumption of cells, increasing cellular energy, which in turn enhances memory — both long- and short-term — as well as being neuroprotective and antioxidant.

Be careful:  methylene blue has a hormetic dose response, meaning low doses are beneficial, while high doses are dangerous, and can even be fatal.  Never take more than 5mg per kilogram of body weight (and less if you are obese).

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One comment

  1. Lucas Aoun says:

    Great write up, Hannah!
    I am very keen to try out the timed release melatonin that you suggested.
    I believe people respond best by ingesting roughly 4 hours before bed time, for best sleep.
    We will soon find out 😛

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