June 2, 2012: I’ve updated this post with links for the supplements if you want to order online. Some of them are not readily available in stores like Whole Foods.
When I read the book Buddha’s Brain, I was very impressed by an appendix, Nutritional Neurochemistry, by Jan Hanson. She’s an acupunturist who has specialized in clinical nutrition for many years.
I’ve been following Hanson’s suggestions and taking supplements for about six weeks now. I take the minimum amount suggested. I feel better! My memory is better, I sleep better, and I focus better. My mood may be a little better—I wasn’t depressed before, and I generally feel buoyant already.
I haven’t noticed any changes in my digestion (the other area that neurotransmitters affect), but I take great care with my diet, having been tested for food sensitivities years ago and generally following a Type O Gatherer genotype diet. I eat well, going light on grains, beans, and dairy (mostly limited to yogurt and kefir), eating lots of fruits and veggies including green juices, and buying fresh and organic.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, just someone in pursuit of health and well-being. I’m going to repeat some of what Jan Hanson says here in the hopes that if you’re really interested in this topic, you’ll click the link above, buy the book, and read it yourself. The world needs more people who are working toward functioning at 100 percent of their capabilities!
Base your decisions either on testing or on self-observation.
- If you have problems with sleep or digestion, supplement for serotonin.
- If you have memory issues, build acetylcholine.
- If your energy is low, build norepinephrine and dopamine.
- These last two and serotonin help with mood.
Since supplements are expensive, it seems wise to start with your diet, because you gotta eat anyway. In general, eat lots of protein (a serving the size of a pack of cards at each meal) and at least 3 cups of veggies per day. Protein includes nuts, dairy, seeds, eggs, legumes, and grains, as well as meat, poultry, and fish and seafood.
Foods that are particularly good for brain health: berries, egg yolks, beef, liver, and dairy fats. I prefer grass-fed bison to beef and suggest avoiding liver unless it’s from a really clean source. Eggs with orange yolks from free-range chickens rock!
Foods that are not good for brain health: those with refined sugar and/or refined flour. You probably know this already.
If you think your body may disagree with some foods, either get tested for food sensitivities (chiropractors and naturopaths offer this) or eliminate suspects for a week or two and notice if you feel better, think more clearly, digest more easily, and have more energy. Anything your body is sensitive to causes an inflammatory reaction throughout your body, and inflammation is an enemy of your brain.
Supplements for basic brain health
Hanson recommends multivitamins with 10 to 25 times the daily value of all the B vitamins. For adults, that means at least the following amounts:
- 12 mg of thiamin (B1)
- 13 mg of riboflavin (B2)
- 160 mg of niacin (B3); you may need a separate supplement* to get this much, and I recommend the no-flush kind
- 50 mg of pantothenic acid (B5)
- 17 mg of pyridoxine (B6)
- 24 mcg of B12
Check your multivitamin label and if these amounts are not provided, find one that does. I like Source of Life food-based vitamins.
Vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid play a crucial role in the production of many neurotransmitters:
- Be sure to get 50 mg of B6 in the form of pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) on an empty stomach in the morning. I have not found this form in a multivitamin, so I take a separate supplement. B vitamins are water soluble; any excess is excreted, so it’s okay if you take too much (at least from what I read now).
- Take 800 mcg or more of folic acid, which is twice as much as most multis contain, so you’ll need a separate supplement.
- Get at least 24 mcg of B12, which multis usually have.
Make sure you’re getting 400 IU of Vitamin E, at least half of which is gamma-tocopherol (not the more common alpha-tocopherol, which multivitamins usually contain).
Get 100 percent or more of the daily value of minerals. The Source of Life multi mentioned above includes the minerals below.
Iron plays a big role in brain health. If you think you might be low in iron, get tested, and supplement if you need it.
- 1000 (men) or 1200 (women) mg of calcium (usually supplements are needed; I like New Chapter Bone Strength Take Care)
- 20-35 mcg of chromium
- 900 mcg of copper
- 8 mg of iron (18 for menstruating women; Source of Life’s multivitamin offers this much iron—see link above)
- 320-410 mg of magnesium
- 1.8 to 2.3 mg of manganese
- 45 mcg of molybdenum
- 700 mg of phosphorus
- 4.7 g of potassium
- 55 mcg of selenium
- 8 to 11 mg of zinc
Get enough omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits are better growth of neurons, mood elevation, and slowing of dementia. She recommends fish oil containing about 500 mg each of DHA and EPA daily—high quality, molecularly distilled. I like New Chapter Wholemega. It’s from sustainably caught wild Alaskan salmon.
Note: If you want to avoid fish oil, you can take a tablespoon of flax seed oil and 500 mg of DHA from algae daily.
Supplementing for neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitter supplements should be taken carefully. Start with the smallest dosage, try one new one at a time, and discontinue if you have negative side affects. Do not combine neurotransmitter supplements with antidepressants or psychotropic medications.
Hanson recommends building serotonin first. Serotonin supports mood, digestion, and sleep. Take 50-200 mg of 5-HTP in the morning or 500-1,500 mg of tryptophan before bed. If you need help sleeping, tryptophan at night is probably the better choice.
Norepinephrine and dopamine support energy, mood, and attention. Dopamine transforms into norepinephrine, so supplementation is the same for each: take L-phenylalanine or L-tyrosine, and start with 500 mg on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. The maximum dose is 1,500 mg, which may be too stimulating for some.
Acetylcholine supports memory and attention. Take phosphatidylserine (PS), 100-300 mg per day. Also take acetyl-L-carnitine, 500-1,000 mg first thing on an empty stomach. Take huperzine A, 50-200 mcg per day. Hanson recommends finding which combination works best for you.
*The supplement links are based on the recommended minimum dosages given in Buddha’s Brain. I am a small person, and these dosages work for me. If you are larger or more in need of neurotransmitter supplementation for particular purposes such as sleep, attention, or memory, you can experiment with taking up to the maximum recommended, only making one change at a time and making gradual changes. Many of the supplements may be ordered from Amazon on a subscription basis, saving you money.