it's scary, all right, but every-one's had the experience: it's the big meeting (or date, or speech or exam) and your lazy synapses are firing as if they're at Sunday brunch. As you rummage around for clarity and grand thoughts, you come across only wisps of cotton fluff. Is there something ingestible that will boost those sluggish neurotransmitters? Well, yes, but some remedies are better-researched than others.
Alternative types rhapsodize about the glories of magic ginkgo, the leaf of an ancient Chinese tree. Germany's Commission E touts the herb for improved blood flow and cognitive enhancement. Recommended dose is one 40-milligram capsule (or 30-60 drops of extract) standardized to contain 24-per-cent ginkgo flavonoid glycosides three times a day, although it takes several weeks to work at full tilt.
While there are many studies of ginkgo, most are on elderly people with cognitive problems. Some authorities, like the credible University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter, question whether the remedy has much effect on healthy folks. And there's little monitoring to see if the label matches the contents. When the U.S.-based Consumerlab tested gingko products, a quarter weren't what was advertized.
So do you indulge in the prehistoric leaf? I do, every day, though I'm not really sure I'm getting much brainier. Be careful, though -- don't take it if you are on aspirin regularly, because ginkgo is a blood thinner, and check to make sure your pharmaceuticals aren't going to make it do bad things.
Panax ginseng has also been extolled as a wonderful focuser. I take it at dramatic moments and find it moves consciousness speedily to a more confident place. Commission E approves Panax ginseng (Chinese ginseng) for invigoration and concentration. But it's been less studied than ginkgo, and we know it affects hormone levels. Pregnant women and those with high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease should stay away from it. Also beware insomnia.
Then there's the much-celebrated fish oil. A number of studies demonstrate that omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, flaxseed) bear some relationship to mental clarity, particularly when taken in the right proportion to omega-6 fatty acids (olive oil, sunflower seeds). It's not exactly clear what that ratio is, but if you can handle munching flesh, fish is rapidly becoming the new elixir.
Some practitioners suggest sniffing rosemary leaves. Others recommend meditation, stand-on-your-head yoga, the not-well-studied gotu kola and lots of vitamins B, E and C. But if your cognitive functioning is really trailing off, don't fool around -- see a doctor and a holistic practitioner.
EXPERTS"Many things can decrease mental performance, (but) I recommend a 12c dose of Baryta Carb once a day for three weeks, then one week off."
DAVID J. TULBERT
Centre for Classical Homeopathy
"Ginkgo in combination with other herbs is the most empirical remedy. Bu Nao Wan, a ginkgo pill, has 15 other herbs that balance its effects."
Doctor of Chinese medicine
"The data says eating a high-calorie breakfast enhances memory, (as do) complex carbohydrates (pasta, rice). It's too early to be conclusive, but data suggests a high intake of fish oil does help."
Nutrition department, U of T
"People like you or me who might forget where we put our keys don't experience much of an effect from ginkgo."
Pharmacologist, U of T
"Ginkgo facilitates access to information retrieval. Almost everyone who takes it sees improvement."
Doctor of Chinese medicine
Research assistance by Greg Konstantinidis and Nicola Luksic