Becoming a Mental Rockstar

Becoming a Mental Rockstar

(Originally published as a four part series of articles for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

Part One

Recently, I saw the movie, Limitless, about an author with writer’s block and little in the way of personality or potential. He discovers a drug that allows him to use his total brain capacity with one hundred percent efficiency. Suddenly, he is able to brilliantly string together everything he knows, including forgotten memories of articles, movies, and conversations. He writes his book in a matter of days, he converses eloquently with anyone, he thinks his way out of the most difficult situations, and he knows how to implement new ideas in order to rapidly achieve tremendous goals. I must admit, I would be tempted to take such a pill.

While we spend untold dollars and hours enhancing the size and shape of our bodies, most of us don’t put a lot of energy into toning our minds, though the payoff could be substantial. One of the few populations that actively pursues enhanced mental prowess is college students. In graduate school, I began to notice that my mind wasn’t performing as well as I wanted it to. Perhaps I was just demanding more of it than ever before. In addition to learning everything I possibly could about Western medicine, herbal medicine, acupuncture, and other academic subjects, I was trying to improve as a musician – a kind of learning that pushes the brain in a very different way. It was at this point that I became interested in a class of supplements known as nootropics – AKA “smart drugs.”

Brain enhancing substances come in several forms. First, there are prescription stimulants, like Ritalin and Adderall (used mainly for Attention Deficit Disorder). While these drugs can be helpful, many are closely related to meth, and carry a certain risk of addiction, mood changes, and overstimulation. Another pharmaceutical, Provigil, is a bit more interesting, as it’s not an amphetamine and usually has minimal, if any, side effects. It was used originally to help narcoleptics stay awake, as its primary function is to promote wakefulness. Many people take modafinilto help them with narcolepsy, but there are some some alternatives to Modafinil. In very rare cases it can cause a nasty reaction in which the surface layer of tissue (skin and mucous membranes) detaches from the deeper layers; this may lead to blindness or death. I tend to steer my patients toward more natural approaches, since the long term risks of these pharmaceuticals are usually unknown, and they have no potential to actually improve our brain function in a lasting way.

Next are caffeine sources, such as coffee, tea, yerba maté, tea, guarana, caffeine pills, and energy drinks. Caffeine can definitely make us work faster and more efficiently, as millions of users worldwide have experienced. It sometimes temporarily improves mental clarity and, for many, is a fairly effective mood lifter. But it has its limitations. It can disrupt our sleep, make us anxious or irritable, and give us headaches when we stop. Occasional consumption seems best. With daily use, we may need it just to feel normal, and if we abstain for a while, we often find we feel just as good without it. Of greater concern to me as a doctor is that it can enable us to push ourselves beyond our means, leading to depletion. And then it can help us ignore the fact that we’re depleted.

Then there are nootropics, which, by definition, should be without side effects or toxicity. Some of these are created in laboratories and have no essentiality to human life, yet appear to have some benefit on brain function. Others are nutrients that we need, which have benefits beyond their effects on our brains. The  term “nootropic” was first used to describe a drug called piracetam, synthesized in 1964. It has demonstrated some benefit in cognitive function, including dyslexia, and a protective effect against brain damage. It is also widely available without a prescription and appears to be quite safe. Studies on the use of piracetam for mental enhancement have been a bit spotty, but a recent analysis of its use for cognitive impairment in older people showed a significant benefit. There are now dozens of similar drugs, all ending in -racetam, sometimes referred to as the “racetams.” Another common nootropic drug is hydergine (developed by the same scientist who invented LSD), also apparently safe, and prescribed mainly for age-related cognitive decline. Users report that the effects of these pharmaceutical nootropics may be enhanced by combining them with certain nutrients, such as lecithin and choline (discussed below).

There are many nutrients that benefit mental function. The deficiency of just about any essential nutrient could cause a degradation of mental function, but we will focus on the ones most commonly implicated in mental dullness, as well as the nutrients that can enhance cognition in higher than normal doses. The nutrient class of nootropics tends to have the best safety profile, and these are the ones I am most interested in, because they are often beneficial to us whether or not they succeed at making us mentally sharper. They tend to be less dramatic in their effect than the substances listed above, but if you’re patient, you may notice a distinct benefit over time. Below are brief profiles on some of these nutrients. (Only the nootropic properties are discussed, though they all have numerous other important functions in the body.) If you’re interested in trying one or more of these supplements, I highly encourage you to do your own research and speak to your health care provider first.

Fish Oil: Fish oil is rich in a fat known as DHA, a major building block in brain tissue. People with cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression all tend to have low levels of DHA. DHA also appears to be beneficial in Attention Deficit [Hyperactivity] Disorder (ADD/ADHD). Another fat in fish oil, EPA, has demonstrated some benefit in schizophrenia. I believe one needs a fairly large dose of fish oil (from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, twice a day) to really see its therapeutic benefits of fish oil. (It would take between 10 and 30 large softgels a day to get an equivalent amount.) Several of the fats present in fish oil are essential, meaning we must get them through our diet, and other than fish, algae, and krill, there are very few other good sources.

Choline: Choline is another essential nutrient (we cannot manufacture it in our bodies) and deficiency is common, especially among vegetarians. Main food sources are liver, eggs, cod, milk and soy lecithin (phophatidylcholine). Modest amounts occur in cauliflower, spinach, wheat germ, quinoa, and almonds. While choline plays a role in many aspects of human physiology, of interest here is the fact that it is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is involved in thinking and memory. Choline may be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric disorders, traumatic brain injury, and cognitive impairment. If you have a loved one who died in an accident visit Choline is especially vital during pregnancy to ensure proper nervous system development in the fetus. Lecithin from soy or eggs is a common supplement for brain function, although it may not be well absorbed. Another form, called citicoline, appears to improve mental focus and be of possible benefit in ADD.  A form called alpha GPC is thought to be more efficiently converted to acetylcholine than lecithin is, and is used to enhance mental function.

DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol): While choline cannot pass directly into the brain, the closely related compound DMAE can, and once in the brain, it is thought to be converted to choline. More research needs to be done on DMAE, but it appears to be beneficial at promoting alertness, mental clarity, and focus. Too much may cause insomnia or irritability.

Acetyl-L-Carnitine: A form of the amino acid carnitine, this substance has a protective effect on nerves and brain cells. It is also involved in energy production, and may have some benefit in Alzheimer’s disease, memory enhancement, and depression.

Tyrosine: This amino acid is a precursor to neurotransmitters and has potential applications in several medical conditions. While evidence of cognitive benefits in healthy individuals is scant, several studies have demonstrated it can enhance thinking and memory during times of physical or mental stress. The form acetyl-l-tyrosine may be more effective in this regard.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is critical in many areas of human physiology, particularly as a component in enzymes that are necessary for proper function of the nervous system, energy production, and blood cell formation. Low levels of B12 have been associated with loss of brain volume in the elderly. Fatigue and poor memory are just a few of the possible symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, and it would be much too simplistic to suggest that these symptoms reliably indicate a need for more B12. However, B12 is safe even in high doses, and because the main dietary sources are meats (including seafood), vegetarians and vegans should routinely supplement with it. Absorption of B12 through the digestive tract requires a protein secreted by the stomach, called intrinsic factor, and not everyone does this efficiently. Therefore, supplementation is best done through injection or dissolving it under the tongue, where it can be taken up directly by the veins there. The best “sublingual” form, as it’s called, is methylcobalamin. B12 functions best in combination with folate (folic acid) and I generally recommend taking it with the whole complex of B vitamins, particularly as these are safe and water soluble, and they are needed in greater amounts when we are under stress.

Next month, we will continue our discussion with profiles of more interesting nutrients and herbs, and we’ll look at other factors involved in mental performance. The fact is, while these supplements may enhance our cognitive power, mental fog is not usually caused by a deficiency of any of these substances. Mental and physical activities are strongly linked, thus, best supplements for running may also prove effective. Supplements are often most useful we’re under lots of stress, waking up all night with a baby, or otherwise unable to do the basic measures of health maintenance. There are all sorts of other pill-free ways to sharpen our minds. For instance, try this for the next few days: eat only clean, fresh, unprocessed foods; get at least 7 hours of high quality sleep a night; do 20-30 minutes of exercise each day; and drink plenty of water. See how your mind responds.


Part Two

Sometimes I feel like a mental rockstar. Other times not quite a rockstar; more like I’m singing off-key karaoke in a dive bar. Every athlete knows there are many factors that contribute to whether they’re on their game or off it, and the same is true for mental performance. Likewise, while athletic intelligence applies to everything from boxing to ballet, peak mental performance doesn’t just mean having a mind that’s big and fast. At least as valuable is a mind so clear that we don’t get ensnared by thoughts that have no purpose. (One could argue that most, or all, thinking is purposeless, but that’s another discussion.)

We can simplistically frame our thinking into two classes: (1) Trains of thought that we’d consciously choose to hop aboard. Making plans, setting goals, visualizing success, sending positive wishes, lovingly holding someone or something dear in mind, deconstructing a negative pattern for the purpose of letting it go, thoughts of admiration, inspiration, appreciation, gratitude, etc. (2) Trains that take us nowhere useful or pleasant. Worrying, reliving painful experiences, rehashing conflicts, judging oneself or others, mentally complaining, daydreaming when it is our intention to do otherwise, all redundant thoughts, etc.

When our mind is clear, we tend to avoid hopping on trains of thought in the second category. It’s impossible to stop these trains from ever pulling into the station of our consciousness; the skill is in recognizing, as soon as possible, that this isn’t the train we intend to be on, and then taking a different train. There are all sorts of ways to improve our ability to do this, some of which were discussed in part one of this newsletter. This month, I’ll cover a few more.

Mental cloudiness, confusion, or negativity are imbalances in the same way that all health problems are imbalances. Though the issue manifests on a mental level, its origin may be nutritional, environmental, emotional, mental, drug-induced, or something else. First, we’ll finish looking at some interesting herbs and nutritional supplements that have the potential to improve mental clarity and function.

Theanine (l-theanine): This interesting amino acid occurs naturally in green tea. It promotes relaxation, has protective effects on the brain, and increases alpha level brainwaves – a state associated with calm mental alertness. Large doses (200mg or more) may be useful for anxiety and insomnia. You can get theanine naturally by drinking tea, but the caffeine content may negate theanine’s calming properties. Therefore, the pill form is usually a better option. A very safe supplement.

Vinpocetine: Derived from the common groundcover Periwinkle (Vinca minor), vinpocetine increases blood flow to the brain and improves the brain’s utilization of oxygen and glucose. Studies have focused on age-related mental decline (rather than use as a cognitive enhancer among healthy, younger adults). Vinpocetine has demonstrated an ability to reduce the loss of neurons due to poor blood supply. It also improved scores on cognitive tests (attention, memory, concentration) among older adults with memory problems.

Huperzine A: Extracted from a form of moss, Huperzine A is widely used for learning enhancement and memory support. It inhibits the enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in memory and learning. One study showed that adolescent students improved their “memory quotient” (MQ) while taking it. Most of the research on this substance concerns its potential as a medication for Alzheimer’s disease, which looks promising, especially since it appears to be safer and effective at lower doses than other medications for this condition.

Trimethylglycine (TMG): First discovered in sugar beets, this substance also occurs naturally in the human body and plays many vital roles. Among these is the repair of DNA (which may help prevent some expressions of cancer and age-related disorders); reduction of homocysteine (an amino acid which, when present in elevated amounts in the body, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease); and the production of several neurotransmitters which affect mood and mental function. Supplementation with TMG may improve mental alertness, and it is a precursor to the amino acid S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a natural antidepressant.

Phosphatidyl Serine (PS): PS is a fat that occurs in cell membranes and seems to benefit cognitive function. Unfortunately, much of the research on this nutrient is flawed, so it’s difficult to make claims about PS with any certainty. However, it appears to be beneficial for clearer thinking, for Alzheimer’s disease and confusion in older people, as well as for childhood ADHD. What has been more clearly established is that PS is useful at lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, especially when it is elevated at night and prevents deep, restful sleep. If stress and/or sleep deprivation (either quality or quantity of sleep) are a primary reason for your mental dullness, this supplement may be useful.

Tulsi (Holy Basil): Tulsi is an Indian relative of basil and an important Ayurvedic herb (the traditional medical system of India). Its unique minty/basily flavor produces a very pleasant tea, which makes it easy to consume on a daily basis. Indeed, daily consumption is the way to get results from tulsi, since it is not a strong or fast acting substance, but it is a remarkable herb. It promotes relaxation, improves energy, reduces inflammation, boosts immune function, and supports resistance to stress. While its action is not limited to the cognitive realm, the sum of its properties are conducive to better thinking.

Bacopa monneiri: Bacopa is another Ayurvedic herb, also known as brahmi, with some mild cognitive enhancing effects. It been shown to alleviate anxiety, an Australian study showed an extract of bacopa improved memory in individuals over 55, and it appears to offer some protection against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Gotu Kola: Yet another Ayurvedic herb, gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is the primary medicinal in Ayurveda for strengthening and balancing the nervous system. It is considered to be calming while promoting mental clarity. In Chinese medicine, this herb is thought to promote smooth Qi (energy) flow.

Celastrus panniculatus: As you can see, Indian culture places great value on having a sharp mind. Celastrus (jyotishmati) is another Ayurvedic herb for mental and neurological performance. The oil of these seeds is considered to nourish the brain, enhance memory, and prevent mental deterioration. The common name for this plant is “Intellect Tree.” This and the previous three herbs are often used together and/or in combination with other nutrients to enhance their effectiveness.

Ashwagandha: For one last Ayurvedic herb, let’s not forget the most popular, ashwagandha (Withania somniferum). Ashwagandha is not usually the first choice for sharpening the mind, but it can be an important adjunct herb in treating the root of mental dullness. This herb has two primary qualities — it is restorative, building energy and improving our resistance to stress, and it is relaxing, helping us to better manage stress and get a good night’s sleep. Consequently, it is known as a medhya rasayana, an herb which is rejuvenative to the nervous system. Herbs in this class are thought to retard brain aging and support regeneration of the nervous system, while also possessing calming and memory enhancing effects.

Rhodiola rosea: Rhodiola is a mountain plant which, in common with some of the previously mentioned herbs, possesses “adaptogenic” properties, meaning it may improve one’s ability to favorably adapt to stresses of all kinds (malnourishment, mental or emotional stress, overwork, extremes of temperature, high altitude, etc.). Rhodiola improves resistance to fatigue, enhances mental performance, strengthens immune function, and benefits mild to moderate depression.

Ginkgo biloba: Ginkgo was among the first of many herbal remedies to garner widespread interest in the past couple decades, primarily due to claims of its ability to enhance memory and attention. There have been many studies on this herb, but conflicting results. Some research has shown ginkgo supplements improve cognitive function and mental sharpness, and benefit mild to moderate dementia. Other studies show ginkgo to be of little to no benefit. I used ginkgo extensively during my early years in graduate school and felt it helped a little when I needed to study, but the effect was not pronounced. Therefore, like the preceding herbs, ginkgo may be best utilized in combination with other cognitive enhancers.

If you are interested in trying any of the herbs or supplements covered in this month’s newsletter, please speak to a healthcare provider who can guide you. It is important to select supplements and/or herbs that are appropriate for your presentation and dosed correctly.

Pills and teas need to be understood for their strengths and limitations. These substances have a certain ability to directly enhance mental sharpness, but most of them are better at supporting general neurological health and mitigating biological distractions, so that we can use our mind more efficiently. When our biology is in order, it is easier to make conscious choices about which trains of thought we’ll ride. But these substances are not a substitute for figuring out why our mental performance is not what it should be. They can’t entirely make up for dehydration or a lack of sleep. Next month we’ll look leave the “nootropics” behind and explore some of the reasons — and remedies — for mental cloudiness.

Meanwhile, enjoy one of my favorite mental restoratives — bright sunshine!


Part Three

Last month I introduced the idea that being a mental rockstar doesn’t require a genius level I.Q. or the ability to fire retorts at light speed. In my opinion, the best we can get is a mind that is exceedingly clear. So clear that we waste no energy on purposeless or negative trains of thought. So clear that we are able to ignore all distraction and go straight from point A to point B. So clear that all our mental resources are at our disposal when we need them.

As I explained in the previous two installments of this article, there are innumerable variables that affect the possibility of such legendary clarity. So far, I have focused mainly on supplements that can enhance cognitive function, but I believe the following variables are generally more important to address. Although taking extra amounts of, say, choline may benefit a person’s ability to focus, it’s not likely that one’s lack of focus is due to too little choline. The same is true for most of the supplements I covered. This is why it’s important to unearth the true causes of an unclear mind.

Sleep: Insufficient sleep is an epidemic cause of flabby minds everywhere. By insufficient, I mean an inadequate duration and/or inadequate quality of sleep. Nine hours of sleep might not be adequate if it’s superficial or broken up. And if the quality of our sleep is lacking, more of it isn’t necessarily going to make us feel better. After spending 9 or 10 hours in bed, we often get increasingly groggy rather than more refreshed.

If you’re reluctant to go to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep because there’s an underlying belief that sleep is sort of a waste of time, consider that your efficiency, focus, and presence during your waking hours play a huge role in the quality of your life. If you stay up late to watch True Blood, the degree to which this might enhance your life is minimal compared to the degree to which your mental prowess (and thus, quality of life) may suffer the next day. (When assessing your quality of life the next day, do it without caffeine or other stimulants. This is your unadulterated state of mental health.)

If you think you get enough sleep but you wake feeling still tired and not refreshed, there are many possible causes to investigate, including allergies to mites or dust; overeating before bed; breathing issues such as sleep apnea or Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome; too much ambient light in your sleep environment; too warm or cold a sleep environment; waking from a noise disturbance (barking dog, snoring partner, loud monkeys, etc.); shallow sleep due to stress; disturbed sleep due to pain; waking frequently to urinate (due to consuming fluids too close to bedtime, or to a urinary disorder); or repeatedly waking to attend to a child. If your sleep is problematic and you can identify and rectify the issue, do it. It’s worth it. Otherwise, get yourself to a holistic healthcare practitioner, go to a sleep clinic, or consider the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, a device that monitors and charts your sleep patterns. I have some patients who use it and feel they have benefited from it.

Stress: Stress plays a detrimental role in just about all aspects of health, mental clarity included. Stress activates biological and psychological survival mechanisms that may actually help us think more clearly in the short term. However, activated habitually, these mechanisms are profoundly taxing, and they degrade mental and physical health.

The impact of stress cannot really be quantified, since it not only affects multiple physiological systems, such as sleep, immunity, and digestion, it also influences the decisions we make, like the choice of foods we put into our body. Biologically, we turn to high calorie, high sugar, and fast foods that are bad for our health because it consumes so much energy to be in “fight or flight” mode all the time. Psychologically, it’s easy to make such choices because survival mode is not about long term consequences or delayed gratification. Stress also influences us to prioritize things like work and reading the news (which tend to contribute to more stress) over calming, nourishing activities, like play, community, sleep, and enjoying arts and music.

Stress reduction techniques have the side benefit of promoting mental clarity. Consider meditation, biofeedback, yoga, tai ji quan (tai chi), or qi gong. There are now a number of fun ways to cultivate a meditative mind set, such as neurofeedback, which uses games to induce certain brain states, or the new breed of biofeedback tools, like the EmWave 2, the StressEraser, Heart Math software, and Wild Divine software. I can’t really endorse these devices, but I believe in the technology. Much of the new breed of biofeedback devices utilizes a measure called Heart Rate Variability, which may be the most accurate way yet of detecting stress.

Hydration: Mental function declines when we’re just 1% below optimal hydration. Divide the number of pounds you weigh in half. This is the number of ounces of water to drink each day (e.g., if you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces). Now take this number and divide it by 16, and this will give you the number of ounces to drink each hour that you’re awake. You could further divide this number in half to get the number of ounces you should drink each half hour, or divide it into fourths to get the number of ounces to drink every 15 minutes. I like to break it down for people this way because it seems more manageable for those who have a hard time drinking enough water. It’s also a good reminder that your daily water is best consumed evenly over the course of the day, rather than in large quantities at just a few sittings.

Food Sensitivities: Food sensitivities are one of the most common and insidious causes of mental dullness. The gold standard in food sensitivity testing is the elimination diet, whereby you eat just a few foods that are very unlikely to be problematic (such as salmon, lamb, rice, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and carrots) for a couple weeks to clear out any offending foods. At this point, if food sensitivities are implicated, you should feel much better. Then you systematically reintroduce suspected foods one by one to get a clear sense of how your body responds to them. If you are interested in trying this, please work with a healthcare provider, or at least read up on it, before you do it.

If the elimination diet sounds unbearably difficult, you can try one of the easier alternatives, none of which is quite as accurate. You can do lab testing (via blood sample), which I think is about 80 to 90 percent accurate at best. You can try the Coca Pulse Test, a method of testing for food sensitivities by looking for an increase in your pulse rate as an indicator that you’ve just eaten a food you’re sensitive to. You can read and download the book in its entirety HERE. Or you can just try cutting out all the most common offenders for a few weeks. Wheat products, corn products, eggs, soy products, and dairy products are most likely culprits. If you want extra credit, also cut out nuts, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, citrus fruits, rye, barley, oats, coffee, chocolate, shellfish, yeast, alcoholic beverages, and anything artificial – colors, flavors, preservatives. Then see how you feel.

In Chinese medicine, each organ system is related to an aspect of consciousness. The primary digestive organs relate to the Yi – the intellect, or the ability to focus. We use this focus internally to deconstruct our food and absorb everything good about it. And we use it externally to apprehend and “digest” new information and events. In this way, we assimilate the world and incorporate it into our body of experience just as we incorporate food into physical body. If our digestion is disturbed, whether by stress, poor food choices, or food sensitivities, our ability to focus the mind will often be impaired, too. When I treat ADD/ADHD, I operate under the assumption that there is a food sensitivity or other form of digestive imbalance until proven otherwise.

Allergies: Allergies, like food sensitivities, rob the body of energy and dull the mind. Unlike food sensitivities, which are frequently “below the radar,” most people with allergies know they have allergies, because they get a runny nose, clogged ears, itching, tearing, throat constriction, facial puffiness, dark circles under the eyes, or other obvious symptoms. Allergy testing is a bit more straightforward than food sensitivity testing, since allergies involve an immune response with detectable antibodies.

If allergies are the cause of your mental dullness, mainstream treatments may not make things better, since antihistamines are often sedating. However, there are a wide range of holistic treatments, including desensitization, acupuncture, herbs, hydrotherapy, enzyme therapy, and more. These can often produce partial or complete resolution of the problem.

The great part about working on any of the factors discussed in this month’s newsletter is that optimizing these areas of our life – hydration, sleep, relaxation, immune function – yields benefits far beyond enhanced mental clarity. Next month, in the final installment, we will discuss a few more factors that play a role in how sharp we are, and we’ll take a look at some natural techniques for cognitive enhancement.


Part Four

So far, we have discussed a handful of lifestyle factors that can affect mental performance (such as sleep, stress, and water consumption), and we’ve explored a long list of herbs and nutritional supplements that may help, too. In this final installment, we’ll look at a few more possibilities in sub-par mental clarity and we’ll talk about some solutions.

A major cause of impeded mental function could be broadly termed “pollution,” meaning all of the outside influences that affect us in a harmful way. This includes physical substances, such as molds, heavy metals, drugs, and outgasses from manufactured products and building materials; and also nonphysical influences, such as electromagnetic fields, noise, and an unpleasant work environment.

Molds are prevalent here in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re often unseen and unsuspected. The most common symptoms of exposure to toxic molds are respiratory (nasal and sinus congestion, breathing difficulty) and headaches. However, I believe mild to moderate cognitive impairment is also quite possible, especially when seen from the perspective of Chinese Medicine, which considers phlegm accumulation to be an impediment to mental function.

Heavy metals accumulate in our bodies through a number of avenues, including air and water pollution from industrial plants and mines (coal plants are among the worst), consumption of plant matter grown in contaminated soils, consumption of fish that are high in the food chain (especially swordfish, shark, and tuna), and amalgam fillings. If you live near industrial plants or mines, speak to the DEQ or EPA about getting air, water, and soil analyses for your area. If heavy metal content exceeds safe levels, seriously consider relocating. Know where your food comes from and avoid processed foods whenever possible. Even food that is grown in clean terrain may be processed in contaminated air, equipment, or water (high fructose corn syrup, for instance, may be processed with mercury). As for amalgam fillings, sometimes removal makes a huge difference in one’s health, and other times it doesn’t seem to change anything. In any case, it must be done by a dentist who specializes in this procedure and utilizes equipment to protect you from airborne mercury in the drilling process.

The primary heavy metals of concern are arsenic, beryllium, lead, cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. Several of these, particularly lead and mercury, can cause memory problems and mental decline (these are among the mildest of issues they may be implicated in). And they’re far more dangerous to children than adults. So, even if you choose not to wear a dust mask while sanding old paint, don’t care to get white (composite) fillings, and don’t bother to wash your own produce, it’s worth choosing these things for your kids. If you suspect you have heavy metal toxicity, speak to a natural healthcare provider who can test you and recommend a detoxification regimen.

Many drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, have the potential to diminish mental clarity. If your mental function isn’t what you think it should be, talk to your doctor about taking a break from any drugs you use, and give it a month to see how your mind responds. If you’re sharper without your drugs, work with your doctor to identify which one(s) is/are the culprit, and ask about alternatives.

Outgasses (AKA “offgasses”) are toxic chemical vapors that gradually leak out of many manufactured products. All sorts of things may produce outgasses, from pet toys to carpet to televisions to the particle board under our floors. Taken all together, this collection of chemicals may represent a significant burden on our body’s detoxification mechanisms. Many people are able to handle this burden without developing symptoms of toxicity. Some are not, and may develop any of a very wide array of symptoms, including cognitive impairment.

If you go camping for a few days and feel much better, your usual living environment may be toxic. (Most people feel good when camping; what I mean is a really noticeable improvement of symptoms, which then return when you go home.) When doing home improvement, opt for products with low or zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When it’s time for a new mattress or carpeting, consider products made from natural materials. Air your house out regularly, get carbon monoxide detectors, use natural cleaners, and avoid chemical air fresheners and smelly candles.

The influence of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on human health is not exactly a concept embraced by the mainstream scientific community. But, as we are bombarded by more electromagnetic radiation than ever before, this is something we must look at. Just consider how your radio fuzzes out when you drive under a power line: these cables of apparently contained electricity produce a field of radiation that is real enough to block a radio signal from reaching your antenna. As with offgasses, the average person perceives no particular effect from things like cell phones, computer monitors, fluorescent lights, and electrical lines, while others are highly sensitive to these fields. The camping experiment is useful here, too. Get away from power lines and electrical devices for a while and see if anything changes with your health. Some power companies will do free EMF testing around your house. Consider shutting off the power to your entire house at your circuit breaker (or at least to the region of your bedroom) while you’re sleeping, and see what happens. Finally, get that cell phone away from your bed.

In Chinese medicine, as in Western naturopathic medicine, digestive function is closely related to mental function. An old tai ji quan (tai chi) teacher of mine used to say, “Yi dao … qi dao … li dao,” which roughly means the focus of your mind (yi dao) determines the focus of your energy (qi dao), which determines the focus of your power (li dao). This utterance came mostly when he noticed that I was looking distracted. In other words, the ability to effectively direct your power is founded in the ability to effectively focus your mind. This latter ability, known as yi, is considered in Chinese medicine to be a facet of the digestive system. Disruption of the digestive system frequently goes hand in hand with poor mental focus. Probably the best example of this connection is the legions of children with Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder who have poor diets and/or food sensitivities.

There are two main consequences of poor digestion as it relates to mental function: poor assimilation of vital nutrients in our food (leading to a “malnourished mind”) and the development of phlegm (which makes us groggy and may further impede the assimilation of nutrients). The Chinese medical use of the word “phlegm” here denotes a much broader concept than simple mucus. Phlegm is anything that clogs our flow or accumulates as plaques, blobs, or lumps.  It may be tangible or intangible. As a rule, phlegm is tenacious. It doesn’t go away easily. Excess body fat (phlegm in Chinese medicine) is an unfortunate example. The kinds of things that make excess body fat go away tend to work for “brain phlegm”, too, and they also support good assimilation of nutrients: exercising regularly, avoiding rich foods, fried foods, and sweeteners, eating plenty of steamed vegetables, eating every few hours (not skipping meals), not eating much after dark, avoiding foods you’re sensitive to, taking digestive enzymes with meals (if necessary), and not overeating or eating too fast.

Interestingly, the connection between digestion and mental function works both ways. Not only does impaired digestion contribute to cognitive disturbance, cognitive (and emotional) disturbances contribute to poor digestion. Worry, in particular, is taxing to the digestive mechanisms. As a form of obsessive thinking, it engages the digestive mechanisms but never results in your being nourished. It’s like chewing and chewing and chewing on some food, but never swallowing it (or spitting it out).

Let’s look at two final interventions you can use to improve mental sharpness. Most near and dear to my heart is Traditional Chinese Medicine. I frequently utilize certain acupuncture points that work very well to clear and calm the mind. The results are even better in combination with a well crafted Chinese herbal formula that addresses the root of one’s mental fog. Unlike most of the herbs and supplements I mentioned in earlier installments of this article, a comprehensive Chinese herbal formula can, over time, fundamentally improve mental clarity by building blood, improving vascular tone, strengthening digestion, and eliminating phlegm.

Last, but certainly not least, are the meditative arts. Tai ji chuan, qi gong, seated meditation, yoga, these can help promote lasting mental calm and clarity, and they’re completely free. One of my favorite meditative practices for enhancing mental function is alternate nostril breathing (a form of the yogic practice of pranayama). I always prescribe it to my patients with ADD/ADHD. As it was taught to me by Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi, it goes like this:

You’ll be using the thumb and ring finger of your right hand to alternately close your right and left nostrils, respectively. (Your left hand doesn’t do anything.) Sit comfortably, close your eyes. Bring your right hand to your face and use the side of your thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril. When you have inhaled completely, use the right ring finger to close the left nostril (so both nostrils are closed), and place the middle finger on your “third eye” (the place on your forehead between your eyebrows). Hold your breath a moment. Then lift your middle finger off your third eye, release your thumb from your right nostril, and exhale fully out the right nostril. Leaving your fingers where they are (ring finger still closing the left nostril), inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril. When you have inhaled completely, close the right nostril with your thumb (so both nostrils are closed), place your middle finger on your third eye, and hold your breath for a moment. Then lift your middle finger off your third eye, remove your ring finger from your left nostril, and exhale fully out your left nostril. (This completes one cycle. To continue the cycle . . .) Leaving your fingers where they are (thumb still closing the right nostril), inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril. When you have inhaled completely, close the left nostril with your ring finger (so both nostrils are closed), place your middle finger on your third eye, and hold your breath for a moment. Then lift your middle finger off your third eye, remove your thumb from your right nostril, and exhale fully out your right nostril. And so on. Do five or more cycles. Besides getting you to sit still, quiet your mind, and breathe deeply for a few minutes, alternate nostril breathing is thought to help synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain, so you’ll be thinking more clearly even after doing it for just two minutes.

Whether or not you achieve rockstar status, I bid you a mind that is your ally and servant, a well honed tool that helps you achieve what your soul desires.


Copyright 2011 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.

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