My Experience with Natural Supplements

A guide to cognitive enhancers

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Disclaimer: Consult with your doctor before taking any supplements. Supplements below can be found at your local or online retailer. Do not take more than the recommended doses provided.

Illustration by Anna León

From studying for midterms to holding down a job, life as a student can be stressful. Natural supplements can be a great way to regulate your mood, appetite and sleep. Natural chemical compounds, found both in the body and grown naturally, are thought to act as cognitive enhancers in healthy individuals. These can be taken for a variety of medicinal reasons from improving behavioral characteristics to reducing anxiety and depressive moods. They can also be seen as alternatives for students who refuse to take or are unable to obtain prescription medication. Before going into my experiences with these supplements, it’s important to:

Know your Basic Neurotransmitters

Acetylcholine (ACh): An excitatory neurotransmitter that stimulates muscle contractions and behavior and is required for proper motor control. An excess of ACh can result in confusion, memory loss, depression and nausea while low ACh levels are linked to anxiety, lack of energy and disorientation.

Dopamine (DA): Both an inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter that increases focus and is critical for memory and motor skills. Elevated DA levels can lead to hallucinations, mania and psychosis. Low DA levels causes poor concentration, low energy and overeating.

Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): A major inhibitory neurotransmitter that regulates dopamine and serotonin. High levels of GABA leads to abnormal hyperactivity while low levels are associated with high anxiety, restlessness and stress.

Serotonin (5-HT): Another major inhibitory neurotransmitter tied to sleep, appetite and general well-being. Serotonin deficiency is most often cited as a contributor to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. Too much serotonin can lead to serotonin syndrome, resulting in diarrhea, high blood pressure, high fevers, seizures and unconsciousness.

Amino Acids

L-Tyrosine

A nonessential amino acid commonly found in high-protein foods used to increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels. It’s also known to improve cognitive function when the body is exposed to cold temperatures. Recommended standard doses range from 500-2000 mg taken daily at least 30 minutes before partaking in stressful activities.

I’ve found dosing everyday can lead to severe anxiety, though dosing three times a week  improved my behavior and concentration. That said, stacking this with St. John’s Wort sometimes leads to slight nausea.

L-Theanine

A non-dietary amino acid predominantly found in tea known to decrease anxiety and stress. It’s been proven to increase serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels. It’s shown to promote better sleep quality and less activity during sleep in males. When combined with caffeine, it can improve attention as well as negate the negative effects of caffeine. Standard dosage ranges from 100-200 mg daily.

Since I drink tea constantly, I tend to exceed the standard dose resulting in a more relaxed state. With the addition of caffeine, my focus and motivation increases substantially. I haven’t noticed any disadvantages when stacking L-Theanine with other supplements nor has it improved my sleep quality.

Herbs

St. John’s Wort

An antidepressant herb containing the phytochemical ingredient hyperforin used to enhance mood by steadily increasing serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels. The recommended standard dose starts at 900 mg daily.

Now entering my third month, I’ve found St. John’s to positively improve my attitude, motivation and productivity. If I dose too late into the night, however, I tend to wake up in a groggy, sedated state. In addition, stacking the herb with other supplements garners zero additional side effects.  Although helpful, the user needs to maintain a consistent dosage schedule to obtain the full benefits.

Bacopa Monnieri

An herb shown to improve cognition, reduce anxiety and enhance memory.  It’s shown to influence acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin levels. Bacopa also functions as an antioxidant, protecting the body from harmful molecules. A standard dose starts at 300 mg daily, varying depending on the individual.

For the first few weeks, Bacopa helped me focus on my work and significantly reduced my anxiety. Despite using Bacopa on its own, after prolonged use I experienced a severe lack of motivation along with painful side effects like nausea and bloating and decided to stop.

Passiflora Incarnata

Popularly known as passionflower, this plant is used as an herbal medicine to treat anxiety and insomnia. In animals, passionflower is known to enhance spatial memory and reduce stress while decreasing serotonin levels. In a study done on humans, passionflower has been shown to remedy minor sleep problems in adults after a week. The standard dose ranges from 250-2000 mg depending on the individual.

Based on my month of experience, I’ve found stacking passionflower with caffeine and L-theanine increases my productivity. Since I’m still wide awake from the caffeine and L-theanine at the end of the day, passionflower helps in calming the stimulation caused by the other supplements. Even when taking passionflower with other supplements, I didn’t feel any negative effects. This results in an easier time falling asleep and less grogginess when waking up.

 

 

 

Dustin is a third-year literature major. In their free time, Dustin hones their lyric-writing and vocal abilities in hopes of becoming the next singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo.