This is the second post in a series (of undetermined length) on techniques I have tried to improve my brain power. The first post focused on one of the easiest and cost effective approaches – physical activity and exercise. Today I’m going to talk about one of the more complicated options. Nutritional supplements. (Queue dramatic music.)
For the record, if I participated in an affiliate marketing program, this would be a profitable post for me because I’m talking about a LOT of products. But my goal is to share what I’ve personally tried, and what made a big enough difference to me to keep using. For this reason, I am NOT including hyperlinks to every single product listed in this message. If you are interested in learning more, you are very capable of looking them up on Amazon.com yourself!
(Also, if I ever permit on this site it will only be for causes or organizations I personally support as well.)
The supplement issue is especially challenging for me now, since in 2019 I am actively pursuing a lower-energy, less-industrialized, less-consumerist lifestyle.
And nutritional supplements are the poster children for industrial processed products.
But I, like so many other Americans, am seduced by the carefully crafted promises, the half truths, and my own desperate wish that fixing all my problems was as easy as popping a pill.
Especially mental problems!
Early in 2017 – before I started my ‘book diet’ – I acquired a copy of Dave Asprey’s Head Strong. I’d heard of lifehacking of course (who hasn’t) and even biohacking, but this was the first systematic treatise I’d read on the subject of deliberately hacking your brain chemistry.
Among all the other suggestions, there was (surprise, surprise) a section for nutritional supplements. After reading the whole book, I decided to give some of them a try… and if a few supplements were good, then MANY supplements must be even better. I carefully crafted a detailed schedule for which supplement, in what quantity, to take exactly when, to maximize my brain benefits.
Unfortunately, all those brain benefits failed to inspire me to put that schedule somewhere for posterity, so I could share the exact details with you almost two years later.
Here are the fragments I could reconstruct from memory and re-reading the relevant chapter of Head Strong.
- Morning, with my Bullet Proof Coffee: COQ10 (p. 259), Magnesium citrate (p. 260 – 261), Krill Oil (p. 264 – 265), one packet of Jeunesse Reserve Antioxident Fruit Blend.
BTW, I was already drinking my own personal variation of Bullet Proof Coffee years before this book came out.
- During the day: I am pretty sure I took vitamin B12 and Folinic Acid in the afternoon (p.260), and I think I took them both twice a day although I cannot now recall why. Perhaps because the dosage I could find was only half of what the book called for. I also took Creatine throughout the day (p. 263) in pretty high doses for the “loading phase” described in the book. I didn’t stick with it long enough to actually get out of the loading phase! I know at some point during the day I also took “Sprout Extract” (p. 266 – 267) but I can’t remember when I took it because it is supposed to be taken on an empty stomach. At that stage of my life, I pretty much ate around the clock! …yes, I realize that wasn’t even two years ago. A lot can change in two years!
- Evening: Calcium with Vitamin D3 (I don’t recall taking a separate, dedicated Vitamin D3 supplement, but Calcium with Vitamin D3 was already part of my routine) (p. 2261-262)
- Bedtime: I experimented a few times with taking Magnesium at bed time to help with sleep
- As needed: Activated Charcoal after eating any especially inflammatory foods (p. 262 – 263)
I also took BCAAs (p. 259) though I don’t recall what time of day. I do however remember distinctly feeling like a poser when I did it, because the supplement is intended for body builders!
I tried one bottle of the Brain Octane MCT in my morning Bullet Proof coffee, and it seemed to make a difference the first few cups. (I only drank one a day, I swear!) But I switched back to regular MCT oil because by the end of the bottle, the effects didn’t seem sufficiently dramatic to justify the expense. That was the only one of Asprey’s own brand of supplements I tried. The Ketoprime, Glutathione, and ActivePQQ looked interesting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to even more money, on top of everything else! At least most of the other supplements I could procure locally.
This whole experiment lasted only a few weeks. It was ridiculously expensive and the epitome of unsustainable in my world. My entire day revolved around ensuring I took various supplements on schedule! More tellingly, I personally did not notice much improvement in my mental performance … probably because I was so flustered and scatterbrained trying to stay on track with taking so many different supplements on a schedule! I still take a few, though – more on that below.
After reading The 4 Hour Body in early 2018, I added a few additional supplements to my daily brain health line up, mostly focused around sleep. I don’t have a copy of the book handy (this was *after* my book diet started), but going from my Amazon.com order history, I added N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) and Phosphatidylserine (aka PS) right before bed to help me fall and stay asleep. If I recall correctly, Tim Ferriss also mentioned magnesium in The 4 Hour Body, possibly also in context of sleep. My memory is faint because I was already taking magnesium at that point, so it was more of a reinforcement for an existing behavior, rather than a new one.
I have also experimented with the lion’s mane tea from Four Sigmatic. Unfortunately, the cost of the tea is high enough that I save the tea for “special occasions” (when my brain needs a hug, like the box says!) and I have read in online forums that lion’s mane is more effective when you take it regularly to keep levels consistent in your body. And drinking the tea daily is not in my budget right now!
Now in early 2019, these are the only brain specific supplements I still take:
- COQ10: in the morning with my Bullet Proof coffee because allegedly the fat helps absorb the COQ10.
- Magnesium: one in the morning and one at night. I can actually tell when I take them at night because my dreams are especially vivid and intense when I do.
- PS: because I actually feel (or think i feel, anyway) a difference in my mental function when I am taking PS. The PS I take also has gingko, gotu kola, rosemary and dimethylethanolamine (DMAE) in it. I take this in the evening, again to help with sleep. I cycle off the PS for a week or so in between bottles.
I have also noticed I fall asleep faster and harder when I take NAC as well in the evenings. However there are plenty of other contributing factors for sleep quality (that’s another post of its own!), so I stopped taking NAC a few months ago. Although after researching NAC benefits while writing this post (namely reading articles like this one), I may reintroduce it!
Of course, the real question is how much do supplements really make a difference, versus just causing a placebo effect? After all, if you’re spending money on all these supplements, and all the smart lifehackers out there say they work, then they have to… right? But there have been numerous studies both about whether supplements are effective at all, and extensive debates over whether they even contain the ingredients labeled on the bottle. Additionally, I lost a lot of faith after listening to the audiobook version of Suggestible You by Erik Vance September of last year. (If you take maintenance prescriptions or even over the counter medication on a frequent basis, you might want to skip this one. You’ll be happier not knowing.)
On the other hand, if the medicine or supplement works through the power of suggestion … it still works! So maybe that isn’t such a bad thing!
Off to the local vitamin store I go. Oh wait. Never mind. Off to research more natural ways to enhance brain function. Stay tuned!
Wow, a tour de force of reporting.
BCAA’s and creatine: I also took these for a while because my personal trainer recommended them; I can hardly remember these old days when I was enthusiastic about lifting days and running days.
I don’t remember taking magnesium citrate, but during my vegan days I used to drink cashew milk; most nut-based milk contains *potassium* citrate which is a highly effective diuretic and should never be taken just before a Red Cross donor appointment where I must sit perfectly still for 2 hours! I learned this very painfully as I had to cut one session short so I could run down the hallway.
When I was both lifting and vegan, I took many many supplements; now that I am not lifting and not vegan I take hardly any, and I’ll stop when I run out of my current supply of Centrum and D3. I agree with your conclusions; and my father does too, who pays much more attention to these matters than I do. The longitudinal studies of vitamins show they are neutral; neither helpful nor harmful; and vitamins are much more carefully made than supplements.
My strategy now is sleep (7.5 hours a night… somehow I can’t cross the bridge to a full 8), and lots of fresh food; eggs and leafy greens every day.
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