Natural Brain Boosters
Several supplements are available that claim to boost your brain power. Do they work?
Herbs for Thought continued...
It's believed that ginkgo works by thinning the blood and thereby improving oxygen flow to the brain. The brain is a glutton for oxygen, so it's possible that even a slight lack of circulation can affect its performance.
As a brain booster for people with normal mental abilities, it remains controversial.
For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2000 found that ginkgo improved attention. A 2001 study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that it improves memory. Nevertheless, in a review of studies on ginkgo in healthy people, researchers found no good evidence that it improved mental abilities, according to a 2002 report in Psychopharmacology Bulletin.
You should not take ginkgo biloba with any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen because they also thin the blood. Combining the two may cause excessive bleeding. The same goes for blood thinners such as warfarin.
Huperzine-A, derived from the Chinese moss Huperzia seratta, is another herb that has been studied as a potential Alzheimer's therapy. It may also work as a brain booster in healthy people, but few studies have looked at that.
One study out of China showed that it improved memory and learning in a small group of students. "It has been used in China much more than it has in the U.S.," Sahelian says.
Huperzine-A appears to block an enzyme in the brain that breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine carries information across synapses, the space between brain cells. "More acetylcholine stays in the brain, and that's how it can be helpful in memory," Sahelian says.
Beyond herbs, a number of nutrients may work as brain boosters.
An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oils, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is thought to be important to an infant's developing brain. DHA may also work as a brain booster by helping brain cells communicate, according to Sahelian.
"Interestingly, the lining of our brain cells is very highly concentrated with fatty acids, particularly DHA," he says.
One 1999 review of studies on DHA, published in the journal Pharmacological Research, found that the nutrient is essential to normal brain function, and that a diet rich in DHA improves learning, while a lack of DHA causes learning ability to suffer.