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Brain Nutrition

The following are some of the questions regarding brain foods and nutrition that I've received from subscribers to the Brainpower Newsletter. An answer (or my opinion) follows each, of course.

Q: Teachers recommended that I consume carbohydrates before or during the exam. This made me wonder. How many grams of carbohydrates I should consume per 15 minutes or per hour?

A: I should start by acknowledging that I'm not an expert, though I do try to keep up on the latest news and research on nutrition in general and brain nutrition specifically. One thing that is clear is that complex carbohydrates are less likely to give you that "let down" after a while, because the are processed more slowly. So I would go with whole wheat products versus white flour ones, or whole-grain rice versus white rice, and so on. Stay away from sugars too.

As for amount, you might do best to experiment with that. I am happy to hear that they'll let you eat during the tests. You can experiment when you aren't taking a test though, to see how you feel an hour or two after having a sandwich made with whole grain bread, for example, or how well you function mentally if you snack on some protein/carbohydrate food like sunflower seeds every fifteen minutes. I am guessing that both body size and other individual differences are important, which is why a bit of self-experimentation is called for.

Q: What do you know about eating the seeds of fruits (such as apples, apricots, and peaches) to increase brainpower? Is it healthy?

A: Many fruit seeds are poisonous. The ones you mention all have cyanide in them (although you might have to eat a lot to get sick). Nuts, on the other hand, have many great things in them (amino acids, proteins, good oils) for brainpower.

Q: Have you ever tried any supplements like fish oil or lecithin to improve your brain?

A: I seem to feel better and think more clearly when I take my fish oil supplements (and the health benefits are pretty well documented), as I've doing every day lately. I used to take lecithin, and might again. Interestingly, apart from any brain-related benefits, about fifteen years ago when I took lecithin and cayenne together for three weeks, my resting heart rate dropped from about 68 to 48. Cleaned out the arteries? I like to think so - and that would be good for blood flow to the brain I'm sure. Though I stopped after a few weeks my heart rate stayed low for years, and is still only back to about 60.

I also feel a bit more alert when I take niacin, although the "flushing" effect is almost too itchy at times. That may be resolved by taking the non-flushing form of vitamin B-3, niacinamide.

Q: Is it safe to mix many different brain-improving supplements in one day?

A: Good question - one which I should probably let a doctor answer. I suspect that the supplements which are essentially just foods, like the simple herbs, can be used together. I have mixed a lot of different things without any problems, but I can't say for sure how many and in what combinations they are safe.

Q: Does smoking and drinking alcohol always hurt brainpower, or can they help in some way?

A: From what I understand (research is always being done on these questions), the nicotine in cigarettes may actually improve your concentration temporarily. The problem is their addictiveness and long-term effects. It seems clear that cigarettes harm your body/brain over time if you are a regular smoker. So unless you are one of the rare people (like my wife) who can have a smoke once per month without becoming addicted and increasing the frequency, it is better to stay away from smoking.

Alcohol once per week - or even several times weekly - will not harm the brain according the research I have seen, as long as you keep it to two drinks or so. In fact, there is recent research showing that drinking alcohol may help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Q: Which is better for the brain: Choline or Vitamin B-12?

A: B12 has a key role in the normal functioning of the brain as well as the nervous system. It's also involved in the metabolism of every cell of the body. Because B-12 also is used to produce the sheathing on nerve cells called myelin, a deficiency can decrease the efficiency of nerve signal transmission. This is thought to hurt memory and other cognitive functions. In fact, it is thought that in 10% of cases of people with memory loss who don't have Alzheimer's disease, the culprit is a B-12 deficiency.

Choline is taken for brainpower by some because it's the chemical precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in various parts of the brain. Research indicates that acetylcholine metabolism may be needed for proper functioning of memory and intelligence. But I really don't know which is better for the brain. I would want to have enough of both.

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