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What about all the pills, herbs, and bars of brain candy hyped as brain food? Take ginkgo biloba, for example, a highly promoted brain booster. It's claimed to make us sharper and more alert, but a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of its effects on memory and recognition. proved only one thing: we spend a quarter-billion dollars a year on it for no valid reason. Neither the ginkgo users, the tests they took, nor their friends and family could perceive any improvement. Ginseng fared no better in its brain function tests.
Another supposed and somewhat promising brain booster was phosphatidyserine (PS), but it was made from cow brains, before mad cow disease surfaced. Soy-based PS has shown no benefit.
DHA (aka DHEA) has also shown no benefit to brain power in healthy people; even a DHA study funded by a supplement manufacturer remains unpublished. Besides being ineffective, it may quickly cause liver damage and may also cause some cancers, excess facial hair and an increased risk of heart disease.
Because Congress forbids the FDA from regulating foods, these supplements are sold as foods to deliberately bypass government oversight of both their effectiveness and their advertising hype. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently petitioned the FDA to halt the unrestricted sales and rampant false advertising of these and other so-called functional foods, including herbs. The legal battle rages on, and unless CSPI wins, we lose.
In the meantime, and in case CSPI loses, let's apply logic. Because drugs and supplements specify the safe dose on the bottle, your death from taking a whole bottle is not the manufacturer's fault. But if you eat a lot of some food laced by the maker with herbs, the maker might be held liable for any overdose. Thus for his legal safety, the maker puts in so little of the substance that it cannot possibly harm you in any amount. That's also too little to benefit (or harm) us, of course, but the manufacturer's goals are to make money and avoid litigation, not help us. If you want to eat brain food, try fish. Evidence is mounting that the fish high in omega-3 oils discussed in this column in August may support better brain function.
Some of the most common destroyers of brain function are referenced and discussed in the October 2002 issue of CSPI's excellent Nutrition Action Healthletter (subscribe at www.cspinet.org ):
heart disease and heart surgery,
high blood pressure,
sleep deprivation including apnea (and simply not getting eight hours of sleep every night), and
Fortunately, they are all treatable and/or avoidable in the vast majority of cases, and resolving those problems -- not taking brain pills -- should be one's top priority.
So much for the chemical short cuts and obvious self-inflicted brain bombs. What about deficiencies in known nutrients affecting the brain? Deficiency in any of the three vitamins B12, folic acid (B9), or pyridoxine (B6) raises our blood levels of homocysteine through a variety of known mechanisms, and it ravages our blood vessels. The race is then on to see how it nails us first - via heart attack, mini-strokes which produce senility, major strokes, permanent nerve damage, Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's disease, to name a few of its established effects.
If we ingest, absorb and metabolize enough of these three vitamins, we don't need to supplement them. We should get plenty of them from ... ta da ... the right foods. No surprise here: whole grains, leafy greens, citrus fruits and juices, and beans and peas. In addition, we should cut back on meat, including chicken, to reduce our bodies' production of homocysteine. But, of course, you already eat that way, right?
Many people over 50, however, don't get enough B12 simply because their naturally declining stomach acid levels prevent its absorption. Antiacid compounds and drugs - right at the top of our drug intake nationally -- probably compound this effect. Fortunately, B12 is very cheap, and unless eaten "as a main dish" is harmless. Taking B12 won't boost brain power if we aren't deficient in it or can't transport it, but it can help reduce a number of very serious problems, including senility, if we are deficient in it. It's common in the whole grains our diets should be based on. The most useful tests for B12 function are a simple test for homocysteine blood levels and the MCV test for red blood cell size.
Eating right can make us smarter, but can aggressive weight-loss diets dumb us down? You bet! Women on very-low-calorie diets process information more slowly, react more sluggishly, and forget sequences more often than non-dieting women. Gradual weight loss of one to two pounds a week works better for both mind and body.
So eat better, play harder and more often and avoid the shortcut hucksters -- and keep reading this column - and you'll be a little smarter than the bear who does none of these things.