Award-winning journalist Siski Green looks deep into brain power and the substances which claim to boost yours, such as brain pills. But, do they work?
I have always thought fit people must be smart-er people. After all, what could be more foolish than not looking after your own body? No one else is going to do it for you. But despite exercising regularly, I’ve often wondered if there was a way to avoid that mental afternoon slump or a way to stop feeling frazzled when I can’t seem to get even one thing crossed on my to-do list.
So I was curious about trying different ways to boost my brain power. What I found was not just that there are various ways to do it successfully, but that it can have some surprising benefits.
HERBS TO START
I’ll admit, I’ve got an unfair bias when it comes to ‘natural remedies’. Even though I swear by eucalyptus oil for a stuffed nose and chicken soup for a cold, I can’t help but suspect all-natural medication just isn’t going to have the same impact as the man-made in-the-lab chemical variety. If I’ve got a headache I reach for the aspirin, not a cup of ginger herbal tea.
But that’s unfair of me because to begin with, many so-called ‘chemical’ substances are absolutely natural (aspirin was derived from willow bark extract originally, for example) and also natural remedies don’t enjoy one major advantage that man-made chemicals do: mega funds for research.
So there simply aren’t the same number of scientific studies on how effective ginger tea might be for headaches, compared to aspirin, for example. And I don’t know about you, but I like a bit of science to inform my pill taking.
All of this meant I was intrigued to read about new research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology regarding rosemary, a herb which I’m quite partial to sprinkled on my roast potatoes. Dr Mark Moss, head of the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, UK, has been looking into the
effects of rosemary on cognition. “Your brain requires a constant supply of oxygen,” says Moss. “And you can check how much energy is available for the brain for mental processing by observing increases or decreases in deoxygenated hemoglobin. The more there is, the greater the amount of oxygen that has been extracted.” And, what Moss found when he looked into these levels was that rosemary increased these levels, suggesting improved cognitive function of around 15%.
A SAGE CHOICE
Rosemary isn’t the only natural herb that’s been tested and shown benefits for brain function. While rosemary contains compounds such as cineole, rosmarinic acid and ursolic acid that have an active impact on brain neurotransmission, the appropriately-named sage, another herb I like with my meat, also contains ursolic acid and rosmarinic acid, for example – and has also been proven to improve memory recall, according to research from the Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) at the University of Newcastle, UK.
I wanted to know whether I’d feel or notice the difference so I did my own DIY tests. First, I did an online memory test, and noted my score. Then, on different days, I took some fresh herbs and steeped them in hot water for five minutes or so and drank it. Of course, my tea may not have had the same intensity of the herbs as was used in the experiments, but the results were impressive. Not only did my memory tests show improved scores, I also felt better, healthier. Of course that could be a placebo effect or simply a result of having a cup of hot liquid… regardless of why, however, I can say for sure that it worked.
MADE FOR YOUR MIND
Fertility supplements, joint supplements, hair supplements… why not brain supplements?
Neubria has gathered scientific evidence and advice to create supplements for specific mind-related effects such as feeling more alert or improving memory.
I tried supplements intended to give me an energy boost (Neubria Charge) and another that gives you enhanced mental performance (Edge).
Neubria Charge works.
I’m one of those people who goes a bit crazy with too much caffeine. I get jittery and, if you’re really unlucky and happen to be around, I’ll talk non-stop, switching from topic to topic at bewildering lightning speed. This is offset by the fact that I seem to achieve less in that state because I can’t actually focus. With the Neubria Charge supplement, which contains guarana, I felt energized and focused and there were no jittery side effects.
It also contains maca, grown in Peru, which supposedly maintains energy in a more sustained manner, along with theanine which works in a similar way – and that’s something I also noticed in comparison to coffee. Coffee can give me a dramatic energy slump once the high-energy feeling has worn off. With the supplement that didn’t happen.
A surprising extra benefit I hadn’t expected was the effect this supplement would have on my energy for exercise. On a couple of occasions my taking of the supplement coincided with a workout and the difference was noticeable. I felt so much more focused and in control of my movements. I found myself able to zone in on specific muscles as I worked, in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. And the satisfying muscle aches I experienced the following day suggests that I pushed myself harder and in different ways than I usually do too.
The only downside of the Neubria Charge was that a few hours after taking it, I was ravenous. For that reason, I recommend setting a timer and making sure you eat some protein about an hour or two after taking it to avoid that sudden onslaught of major tummy rumbles.
NERVOUS SYSTEM NUTRITION
I also took another supplement that contained Co Enzyme Q10, along with some other brain-boosting nutrients. This kind of supplement doesn’t have an immediate same-day effect but works over several weeks to improve your mental sharpness. It’s harder to assess the effects of that but I like to think I’m sharper, better able to concentrate now compared to four weeks ago when I started taking it. I’ve certainly worked harder than ever before and seem to be managing okay.
But again, I can’t say for sure whether it was the supplements, a placebo effect via the supplements, or some other factor in my life.
What i can say is the ingredients in Edge give me good reason to think they’ve also helped. While they contain Co Enzyme Q10, which has been shown to protect the brain against deterioration and damage, along with lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to increase neural activation, those are either produced by the body anyway or found in foods. I’ve got a pretty healthy diet so I’m sure I’m not low on those.
What they do have that I can’t get from my diet, as far as I know, are substances such as Bacopa Monniera extract. This increases the growth of nerve endings, and so improves communication within the nervous system and brain.
While it’s important to look at what you ingest for brain health, there are other things to look at too – specifically your reflection in the mirror. Bad posture can have a real impact on your brain power and not in a good way. I tend to hold my shoulders slightly ‘up’ all the time and this misaligns the spine, creates tension elsewhere, doesn’t allow the lungs to fully expand, and generally means my body isn’t able to function at optimum levels.
To fix this I tried two things: Pilates and standing at my desk instead of sitting. Both worked brilliantly. The Pilates helped fix my posture all-round (not just when working or sitting) and standing prevented me from indulging in that round-shouldered slouch that I always end up in when sat a desk or on the sofa.
This experience is something that Dalia Hashim, director and co-founder of Maitre of Thyme also found. “I found studio Pilates to be a real eye-opener, in terms of the postural elements I became aware of and the sense of joint limitations/ flexibility in and through practice but also in the sense of oxygen intake. I realized my lungs, especially my right lung, were collapsed as a result of my shoulders having caved inwards (like a dried up leaf) as a result of years of bad posture and neglect on a structural level.”
JUST MOVE IT
Your brain needs oxygen, that’s obvious. What’s not so clear is whether boosting the levels of oxygen in your bloodstream can make you feel more alert.
Guess what? It can. When you move your body, blood pressure and blood flow overall increases and that means your brain is also getting more blood pumping through. More blood = more oxygen = improved brain performance.
What’s more, when you’re on a run, a swim or simply walking briskly, your hippocampus, the part of your brain that’s responsible for learning and memory, lights up. And once it’s revved up your cognitive function improves too.
And let’s not forget yoga. If you can’t go for a walk outside, a jog or a swim, and you need to focus, yoga is your friend. The great thing about yoga is that you can be starting yoga for the first time today and still enjoy the benefits of better focus afterwards. “Almost any yoga posture will promote a mind-body connection as with all of them, you have to set such a focus to be able to hold a position while simultaneously maintaining strong nostril breathing,” says Maija Kivela, Yoga Instructor at Maitre of Thyme.
The key is to learn to activate the right muscles and to connect your mind to movements, according to Kivela. So, for example, if you are doing the ‘tree’ pose, also known as Vrksasana, you’ll focus on maintaining control and strength in the thighs, your groin, torso, as well as ankles and calves.
Do this: Standing with your weight distributed evenly between both feet, shift weight to your left foot and bend your right knee. Grab your right ankle and bring your foot to your inner thigh on the other leg. Your foot should rest on your thigh or below your knee, never on your knee. Put your hands together in a prayer position and rest your thumbs against your chest. Focus your gaze in front of you. Inhale as you extend your arms overhead, hold for one minute, then lower your arms. Repeat on the other side.
I tried this move and a few others at times when I was feeling sluggish mentally and was impressed with what a difference it made. When I went back to my laptop I felt less hunched and tight, and more capable. The long list of things I had to do seemed more manageable and I often found myself rewriting it after just ten minutes of yoga. I also found that when I wasn’t in a situation where I could suddenly jump up and do ten minutes of yoga (like when there are people all around!) simply focusing on my breathing also helped.
YOUR BRAIN, AMPED UP
After all this testing and investigating, I realized there are many effective ways to improve brain power and that all of them are worthwhile doing on a regular basis. I can honestly say I feel more in control of my workload, even though it hasn’t changed (if anything, it’s actually grown since I started doing all these brain-enhancing things), I feel less stressed as a result, too.
When I need a boost, I take a supplement and drink my herb tea, and I genuinely will get more done (or at least get a higher quality of tasks done) in the same time as before. I can’t say whether my IQ level has grown any, but I think all of that makes me pretty smart, don’t you?