The search for ways to improve cognition and mood continues. (Photo by mtungate)
For the past several months, I've been experimenting with these three supplements to see if they have an effect on cognitition and mood. Many people report good effects, and there is some scientific evidence to support these claims.
However, because of the nature of the medicine business, most of the studies have been done either on animals or on people suffering from a disease such as Alzheimer's. The use of these supplements as nootropics in healthy people is therefore something of a grey area.
The idea of the experiment was to find out if they might increase mood, energy or cognitive performance using myself as the test subject. Below is a description of my experiences with each of the supplements along with a quick summary of the science behind their use.
Taurine is added into many energy drinks, but the evidence behind its effectiveness is very limited. In mice, fairly low doses of taurine have been shown to either increase or decrease social interaction and anxiety, whereas in humans data is virtually non-existent except as a treatment for alcoholism.
In my own experiments, I did not see any effect from taking taurine. The recommended amount on the label is 675 mg between meals or at bedtime; my own intake varied between about 200 and 2400 mg. I tried taking it before meals, with meals, and after meals. The only time I thought I noticed something was when I took it before going to bed and had more vivid dreams than usual, but I was unable to reproduce the effect later on.
The potential benefit for preventing hangovers still intrigues me, so I may continue to take taurine in the future. However, I actually did take some taurine once after drinking, and unlike I usually do, did not drink much water before going to sleep. I woke up with a headache, so if it is effective, it's not a miracle drug.
Carnitine in its various forms has quite a bit of scientific evidence behind it for use as a nootropic. Both L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine help rodents perform better in maze tests and protect them from age-related cognitive decline. Elderly people seem to benefit from carnitine too, especially with higher doses. One study reported a nootropic effect even in young, healthy people.
This was the supplement I was expecting the best results from, but alas, it didn't have any effect on me. The doses used in human studies usually range from 1 to 3 grams; my own intake varied between 500 mg and 3,000 mg. Like in the case of taurine, I tried it during various times of the day. Most people suggest it should be taken away from meals, which is what I did towards the end of the experiment.
There was one time when it seemed that a higher dose resulted in suppression of hunger, but as I was unable to reproduce the effect, I concluded that it was due to something else. Indeed, one of the potential side effects of carnitine is an increase, not a decrease in appetite.
Another time when I thought I noticed an effect was when I took about a half an hour before going for a run. This was towards the end of a fast, and I felt more energetic than usual while running. There is some evidence that L-carnitine may increase aerobic performance, but since later attempts didn't produce similar results, I assume that the increased energy I felt was simply due to variations in the hunger cycle of intermittent fasting.
Although I feel that carnitine may have some long-term benefits for preventing cognitive decline, I find the price too high for me to keep supplementing with it. If I were to take it, however, I would go for bulk powder instead of capsules to save some cash.
Even though ginkgo biloba has been studied quite a bit, the results are inconclusive. It seems that gingko biloba does have a neuroprotective effect. In addition, it may reduce anxiety and prevent cognitive decline in elderly people.
The standard dose used in many studies is 120 mg, but doses two or three times as large are not unheard of. Comparing doses and ginkgo biloba supplements is difficult, because the extracts can be standardized differently. In my own experiments, I took between 60 mg and 360 mg at various times of the day.
This was perhaps the one supplement that had me wondering the most whether I was experiencing placebo or an actual effect from the pills. I often took 2-4 capsules (with 60 mg each) of ginkgo before going out, and sometimes it seemed like it gave me an energy boost. On the other hand, it may well have been due to other things, such as the caffeine from coffee or yerba mate. Indeed, taking only ginkgo biloba produced very inconsistent results: sometimes I thought I felt more energetic, other times I definitely didn't notice anything.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some brands of ginkgo may be more effective than others, probably because of differences in the extraction methods. The price of ginkgo biloba is generally not terribly high, so I may experiment with other brands in the future.
In my own experience, none of the three supplements mentioned above produced significant and consistent results in terms of mood, energy or cognitive enhancement. As I mentioned at the beginning of the experiment, I also tried various combinations of the three, but this did not change the fact that for me, they were ineffective. This is based on both my own subjective evaluation and my scores in a memory game that I use to rate my concentration.
For the record, the supplements used in the nootropic battle were: Nu Health Ginkgo Biloba, Source Naturals Taurine, and Doctor's Best Acetyl-L-Carnitine.
Based on these results, I'm beginning to think that my susceptability to the placebo effect is fairly low. I don't necessarily mean that's a good thing, either – an imagined increase in mood or energy levels is just as good as an objectively measured increase, right? On the other hand, it probably does help me weed out the things that have a measurable effect on most people. Caffeine taken on an empty stomach still remains the unbeatable nootropic in my books.
If you have tried taurine, carnitine or ginkgo biloba (or any other nootropic), feel free to drop a comment and share your experience. Meanwhile, for more information on cognition, see these posts:
Green Tea Protects from the Psychological Effects of Stress in Rats
Caloric Restriction Improves Memory in the Elderly
Moderate and Severe Caloric Restriction Alter Behavior Differently in Rats
Anti-Aging in the Media: Rolling Stone on Ray Kurzweil