Get Smart with Brain Boosters

(April 2011) “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’” That lightning bolt of wisdom comes courtesy of the late, great Charles M. Schulz, who brought Charlie Brown and his gaggle of pint-size philosophers into the world. Whether it’s wisdom or just plain smarts we’re after, one thing’s for sure: Most of us would jump at the chance to sharpen our wits. But with today’s shrinking attention spans and busy schedules, we’re not always willing, it seems, to take the time to make that happen. Even so, there’s no question that we can try to enhance what we’ve already got. The latest crop of brain-boosting herbal helpers includes a familiar favorite, along with a sampling of the new and exotic. They’re all backed up by research that explores improvements in memory, creativity, concentration, alertness, clarity, and even the possibility of protecting against Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases. BACOPA MONNIERA This Ayurvedic marvel has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. Rich in antioxidants, its bioactive compounds known as “bacosides” boost memory, comprehension, and learning in mature adults, and it appears to have a significant effect on the retention of new information. Additionally, bacopa slows brain aging, helps neural tissues regenerate, and fights stress and anxiety (which we all know make it harder to remember anything at all). GINKGO BILOBAOne of the oldest living tree species, ginkgo has been studied more extensively than most celebrities. It has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to enhance memory, and modern day science now touts its ability to improve memory in older adults. In a recent comparison of several supplements claiming to “increase mental energy,” ginkgo emerged as the leader for its positive effects on attention and mood. Ginkgo is a fierce antioxidant, attacking free radicals, believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s as well as a host of other diseases. It also improves blood flow to the brain. HUPERZINE A It sounds like something out of the Arabian Nights, but today this “cognitive enhancer,” which has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, is gaining credence for improving memory and concentration. One recent animal study showed that it produced tremendous improvement in underperforming monkeys. How does it work? By raising levels of acetylcholine, a crucial neurotransmitter in the brain that’s pivotal in learning and memory. VINPOCETINE A recent arrival in the U.S., this supplement derived from the periwinkle plant has been widely studied in Europe for enhancing brain function and memory. With many of the same effects as ginkgo, it’s actually faster acting, according to Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, associate editor of the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association. Ray Sahelian, MD, author of Mind Boosters, writes, “Experiments with vinpocetine indicate that it can dilate blood vessels, enhance circulation in the brain, [and] improve oxygen utilization”—all keys to a better memory. (Take small doses to avoid dizziness.) While in the end we may not be as smart as we think we are, we can always take steps to improve ourselves. Abe Lincoln once noted, “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Here’s our chance.