Friday, December 25, 2009

10 Human Experiments of 2009 – Year in Review

10 Human Experiments of 2009 – Year in Review
One of this year's big themes among bloggers was vitamin D deficiency. (Photo by Gail S)

Only a few days left until the end of the year, which means it's time to take a look at the inhuman experiments of 2009. For a summary of the experiments of 2008, click here.

1. Maca root experiment

The purpose of this experiment was to see whether taking maca powder increased energy and sex drive. While those who sell the stuff claim that maca is the ancient Incan remedy for just about every problem you can imagine, the scientific evidence behind it is more modest. That said, a couple of studies have indeed shown improved libido and increased sperm count from maca, so the claims are not entirely baseless.

Personally, I didn't notice anything different on the days I took maca, even in large doses. I speculated in the experiment conclusion that perhaps maca is only effective in those whose sex drive and energy levels are low to begin with. Another possible reason suggested by one of the studies is that only red maca is effective while yellow and black maca are not. The maca powder I purchased was yellow.

2. Retinol cream experiment

The retinol cream experiment was quite unique in the sense that it's one of the very few experiments that actually gave a positive result. The goal was to see whether retinol, the animal form of vitamin A, would improve skin quality. Since retinol is less harsh on the skin than retinoids, I thought it would be useful to try a retinol cream before moving on to the stronger stuff.

While the appearance of my skin didn't change visibly during the experiment, there was an unexpected growth of new hair on my left temple. I even took a few pictures to show I wasn't making it up. I'm not sure whether the effect was simply due to increased collagen production and skin cell proliferation or something else, but if you're suffering from hair loss, I would recommend giving retinol a go. As another experiment, I'm currently applying tretinoin on my face to see if retinoids are even more effective.

3. Tocotrienol experiment

Like tocopherols, tocotrienols are a form vitamin E. Most multivitamins contain only alpha-tocopherol, but it's the tocotrienols that seem to have all the interesting health benefits. Well, at least potential health benefits. One study reported an increase in hair growth in all subjects taking the tocotrienol supplement. Such a result seemed so unbelievable that I had to try it out for myself.

One major problem with this experiment was that tocotrienol supplements are not cheap, which meant that the duration of the experiment was only two months. As I wrote in the conclusion, I didn't see a visible increase in hair growth, but there appeared to be a reduction in the number of hairs lost daily. If I get my hands on an affordable tocotrienol supplement, I look forward to repeating the experiment to see if the reduction was due to tocotrienols or something else.

4. Topical vitamin C, vitamin E & ferulic acid experiment

In this experiment, I applied a topical consisting of ascorbid acid, vitamin E and ferulic acid on my face. All three compounds have some evidence behind them showing that they increase collagen production and improve skin quality. The product I was testing was called SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic acid, which is really expensive if you buy it the usual way; I purchased several smaller sampler bottles online, which was cheaper. Another way to save cash is to make a similar product yourself.

In the experiment conclusion I reported that I didn't see any improvement in my skin quality. A possible reason is that some of the liquid in the sampler bottles was apparently oxidised, which would render it useless. I concluded that it was not worth the price to keep using the product. However, some months later I read a book on skin aging that made me reconsider the whole thing, and so I decided to re-visit the experiment and order another set of sampler bottles. The experiment is still going on, and so far, none of the samplers have contained oxidised liquid.

5. Vitamin D3 experiment

As I'm sure you've noticed, vitamin D3 was really big in the health blogosphere this year. After reviewing the data I concluded that I've very likely been deficient in vitamin D3 for most of my life and decided to start supplementation. I know standing naked in the sun to get the required dosage is a big thing in the paleo circles, but at these latitudes it's not very feasible. Besides, sun damage seems to be a major cuplrit in skin aging.

For a few months, I took 2,000 IU per day and then increased to 5,000 IU. This got my serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels up to 113 nmol/L (45 ng/mL), which is in the optimal range. I'm still taking 5,000 IU daily, and while it hasn't given me complete immunity against all infections, this is the first experiment that has resulted in a reduction of colds. Not even intermittent fasting or the paleo diet did that.

6. Hyaluronic acid experiment

In a sort of continuation to my experiment with MSM, chondroitin and glucosamine, I decided to try oral supplementation with hyaluronic acid. Despite the high price, hyaluronic acid seems to be quite popular and is said to improve skin quality and promote hair growth. The evidence for oral supplements is shaky, however, except maybe for joint problems.

Because hyaluronic acid is so damn expensive, the experiment lasted for only a month, which is probably the shortest duration of any experiment on this blog. I didn't see any difference in skin quality or hair growth, but feel free the take the results with a grain of salt. I think hyaluronic acid may actually be quite useful, but next time I'd rather try applying it topically.

7. Tea tree oil vs. Korean red ginseng experiment

Now here was an experiment that seemed to go on forever. In this "classic" hair growth battle, Korean red ginseng and tea tree oil fought it out on my legs. Since Korean red ginseng (also known as Panax ginseng) has been shown to promote hair growth, and tea tree oil is supposed to be anti-androgenic, I was expecting ginseng to increase and tea tree oil to suppress hair growth on my legs.

After meticulous experimentation with various carrier oils and different parts of the body, I got sick of the whole thing and called it quits without ever seeing any results. You can read the "exciting" conclusion if you're interested in the details. All in all, I would think twice before adding these two to a hair loss regimen.

8. Intermittent fasting experiment

A couple of months ago I wrote on the blog that a year had passed since I began my intermittent fasting experiment. While I've occasionally experimented with different variations of the same thing, I have mostly followed the 24/24 hour cycle of feasting and fasting. That is, for most of the year I stopped eating at about 6 PM and then started eating again the next day at 6 PM.

After the last post describing my year on the diet, I've slowly returned towards a more "normal" way of eating again. Compared to other people, I still have lengthy periods of not eating, but I'm no longer on the strict 24-hour cycle. The main reason for the change is that intermittent fasting does not appear to increase lifespan like caloric restriction does, and life extension is my main interest, after all. For losing weight and improving insulin sensitivity it still appears to be beneficial, provided you do it the right way.

Beyond weight loss, however, I'm thinking there are better ways to incorporate fasting into my health regimen than the 24-hour cycle. Perhaps longer fasts done less frequently, perhaps periodical protein restriction. I'll write more about the subject once I do some more reading. Anyway, I feel pretty good about being able to follow my intermittent fasting routine so strictly for an entire year. Life extension or not, it surely taught me to think of hunger in a new, more positive way. The looks and comments I got from family members, friends, and strangers alike were pretty entertaining, too.

9. Emu oil vs. Hair Again experiment

This experiment was another battle between two hair growth products. This time the competitors were emu oil and a topical gel called Hair Again. Emu oil comes up every year in hair loss forums, but the fact is that the evidence behind it is very limited, to say the least. The commercial product, on the other hand, contained many ingredients that looked quite useful.

After eight months, I concluded that the battle had no clear winner, since there was no change on either side of my face. Yes, the hairs I grew with the retinol were still there, but no further improvement was seen. I still have some of the emu oil left, but I haven't found much use for it ever since I ran out of the topical gel. Sadly, even if I wanted to continue the experiment I couldn't, because the company that makes the gel refuses to ship to Finland any longer.

10. Nootropic experiment

The purpose of this three-way battle between taurine, acetyl-L-carnitine and ginkgo biloba was to see if any of them were effective as nootropics, either taken alone or in combinations. My subjective evaluation of my energy levels, mood, and ability concentrate would serve as the indicators. As an objective measurement, I compared my scores in a memory game meant to improve IQ.

For all the money I spent on these supplements, it's a bit of a disappointment that none of them seemed to do anything for me. As I wrote in the experiment conclusion, one possible reason why ginkgo didn't work is that the plant extracts may differ significantly among brands. Acetyl-L-carnitine and taurine, on the other hand, should be pretty much the same stuff regardless of the manufacturer. In the future, I may try another brand of ginkgo, and I'm thinking of using taurine to prevent glycation and hangovers. Further experiments may follow.


So there you have, the ten inhuman experiments of 2009. Once again, not many positive results, but hey, at least we've learned something, right? As you can see in the top-right corner of the blog under "Current Experiments", many of the experiments that started this year will continue into 2010, so stick around and see how they end.

Finally, I'd like to thank all the readers for your encouraging comments and questions during the past year – and for pointing out the mistakes, of course! You've been very helpful in making this blog better, and I hope the improvement continues the next year. Until then, happy holidays and take care!

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nootropic Battle Conclusion: Acetyl-L-Carnitine vs. Ginkgo Biloba vs. Taurine

The search for ways to improve cognition and mood continues.
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.

Ginkgo biloba

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

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