The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, September 30, 2017
Health / Nutrition ... Personal Reflections ...

Have you heard of “nootropics“? I hadn’t, until recently. Actually, the term “nootropic” goes back to 1972; it basically means a drug or supplement that you can make your brain work better, especially with regard to cognitive functioning, e.g. alertness, memory, quick thinking, etc. In recent years, however, there has been a “nootropics movement”; this is one of those modern internet things, and not surprisingly it seems to have started in California’s Silicon Valley.

This phenomenon is also called “biohacking”, and generally involves young tech-savvy people who want to juice up their brainpower so as to get an edge over their fellow coders and software developers. And so, you can now find a series of web sites that focus on the use of nootropic supplements, and also some commerce sites that specialize in selling nootropic supplements.

One of the key concepts for the new nootropians (or bio-hackers, if you wish) is the “stack”. These folk don’t just settle on one particular substance as their main “nootropic”. Instead, they look for combinations of pills and supplements that will give them the most mental bang for the buck; they’re looking for synergy. One of the rudimentary “nootropics 101” combos is caffeine with L-theanine (through pills, of course, even though this combo comes naturally in green tea). The caffeine revs up your mind, while L-theanine supposedly takes off the edge from the coffee jag, helps you to feel mellow and calm even when your mind is running at warp speed. There are all kinds of other combos that advanced nootropians use.

I myself am not out to “hack” my brain at this point in my life. I am over 60 and I’ve been at the same job now for about 16 years. I’ve carved out a particular niche that I specialize in, and thus I don’t have to compete with other employees (not on a day-to-day basis, anyway). I’m slowly getting closer to the point where I could think about retiring and still leading a decent life, knock on wood. So, a bit of mental fog and some senior-moments now and then are usually not all that threatening to my career at this point.

However, given that I am over 60, I have become more and more concerned about the general state of decay that is already starting to settle into my body as I age. Yes, I know that even in this wondrous era, you can’t stop the process of old age. There is no “fountain of youth” — entropy and decay are fundamental laws of physics. But given what is now known and widely available to the public, there clearly are some things that you can do to slow down the process and hopefully buy a bit more healthy time. Exercise, of course, is one of the biggest things in that regard. Diet and social relationships are also very important, along with maintaining a sense of purpose in life. I’m trying to work on all of these big issues. But like the nootropians, I have also become interested in what might also be do-able via over-the-counter chemistry, i.e. through taking supplements (legal ones, of course).

Yes, you can pick up a catalog or go on a web site for a supplement seller like Swanson or GNC or Vitamin Shoppe or Life Extension, and find a huge list of vitamins, minerals, micro-nutrients, anti-oxidants, proteins, enzymes, oils, all kinds of stuff available in pill, liquid and powder forms. It’s hard to keep up with what pill is supposed to be good for what condition, and even worse, find out if there is any real reason to think that it might be effective (aside from a temporary placebo effect) and not deleterious or outright dangerous to you. Most of this stuff has been rated “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe) by the FDA, so you can try different stuff and experiment with it, to see if it really does help you. But, a lot of these supplements can be quite expensive, going over $2 per day. So if you have 4 or 5 different problems that you are trying to address, you can be out more than $250 per month. That can add up for something that hasn’t been fully studied and tested in the way that real FDA-approved medicines have.

Given all the confusion, a lot of people avoid the whole topic of supplements, or just take a multivitamin. Perhaps this is wise, given that you can find plenty of articles in magazines and on-line sources these days that “debunk” the whole supplement movement. These articles cite a variety of modern studies finding that a supplemental substance that was thought to help fight off some disease or condition doesn’t really work when taken on an over-the-counter basis. Even the touted benefits of Vitamin D are now under attack.

And worse still, occasional “backfire effects” are found. For example, there was some initial reason based on cell-level studies to think that Vitamin E would help prevent prostate cancer in men; but an actual human study had to be stopped when it was found that Vitamin E seemed to be helping to cause prostate cancer. And there have been many articles of late indicating that anti-oxidants can be a double-edged sword in terms of preventing cell damage from oxidizing radicals in the body. In some cases, it was found that some popular anti-oxidants (including Vitamin A beta-carotene and Vitamin E) could interfere with the role that oxidizing substances play in helping to prevent the growth and spread of cancer. One writer concluded that an anti-oxidant might help to keep cancerous mutations from occurring in your body, but if one still does happen (which becomes increasingly likely as you age), the anti-oxidant will speed up the growth and spread of the cancer.

However, I myself still take some supplements. Three of them (Vitamins B and D and calcium) were specifically recommended to me by my doctor based on previous blood tests. I am also taking another 5 or 6 different pills every day or every other day, on my own initiative. My rationale goes something like this — over the age of 60, the body doesn’t so as good a job as it used to in processing and utilizing the nutrients that come from even a good, balanced diet. And I try to avoid the more exotic and expensive supplements, I try to stick with the stuff that won’t break the bank (e.g. vitamin C, zinc, cranberry extract) and I use it in reasonable, recommended doses, I don’t fool with “megadoses”. This hasn’t seemed to have done me any harm over the last 7 or 8 years, and since it isn’t all that expensive, I figure it’s worth a shot, even if only one or two things actually help (and even then, probably in a small way).

FURTHERMORE — I must admit that over the past 3 years or so, I have been taking some expensive and exotic supplements, based on information that I’ve read on a wide variety of science and medical-oriented web sites (hopefully credible). These supplements supposedly focus upon the upkeep of cell mitochondria. I’m not an expert on this, but a variety of credible sources indicate that mitochondria acts something like a power source for all of the cells in the body; and that mitochondrial dysfunction is found to be involved in a broadening range of diseases and conditions, aside from the rare diseases that tie directly to mitochondrial failure. There appears to be more and more scientific interest in the role that mitochondrial decay plays in the general aging process. Some scientists hope that someday, reliable chemical or genetic interventions will be found that can help slow and control the aging process by bolstering the health of our mitochondria.

For better or for worse, this preliminary research and speculation has inspired a new wave of supplements aimed at improving mitochondrial health. And yes, I have taken the bait and am now taking some of these supplements. I will be the first to admit that there is risk involved, both in terms of wasting money for ineffective substances, and in terms of risking some ultimately unhealthy side effect. There are four substances that I now take in varying combinations on a daily or every-other-day basis. You can see them in the photo above. So in effect, I have become a “mitochondrial hacker” and I now have my own “stack”. (Interestingly, one of my supplements, i.e., acetyl-l-carnitine, is also considered a “nootropic” as it also helps to juice the brain cells a bit).

I have researched each of these supplements, and I have been impressed by the fact that all of them have attracted the interest of a variety of legitimate doctors and scientists, and are currently involved in controlled studies regarding their potential to provide some benefit (if not a miracle cure) for various diseases and conditions. You can find a number of studies involving or discussing them on the U.S. National Institute of Health “Pub Med” web site for biomedical literature. They are also being studied with regard to general benefits in the aging process, e.g. here and here.

In the coming years, there will be a lot of new information coming out about these ingredients. And who knows what that news will be. To stay on the safer side (and lower the cost), given the uncertainty, I have been taking less than the recommended daily doses. If some bad side-effect is discovered as with Vitamin E (which admittedly I once took), obviously I will stop taking the pill. If the studies show the pill to not have much effect for anything, again I’ll have to cut bait. I’m hoping that at least one or two of the selections from my “stack” will be shown to have some benefit, in some circumstances.

But we shall see! For now, I haven’t experienced any bad effects from these “mitochondrial-tropics”, and have even felt some occasional good effects (which admittedly may be just a placebo effect — although placebo effects can also be beneficial). I am still exercising regularly, which gets harder and harder as you get older; if these supplements alone help me to keep on exercising, then they are doing something to help my body fight aging. So, my own body-hacking experiment goes on, all in the vain quest to put off the “dying of the light” that Dylan Thomas advises us to “rage, rage” against.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 am      

  1. Jim, Here’s a topic I can’t get myself too worked up about. I have mixed feelings about it, and I’m sure my mixed feelings will show in this comment of random tho’ts with no real center of gravity.

    It seems to me that all people these days want to do is live forever or extend their lives as long as possible. There’s always something one should or should not eat, should or should not take to extend life as long as possible; add in “do” and you’ve got a bunch.

    When one is young, they all seem a smart thing. Get to be in one’s eighty-fourth year and one starts to reconsider that point of view.

    AND as to the “nootropics movement” improving one’s thinking processes (if I understand this correctly) . . . it makes me wonder exactly WHAT they are taking. Back in the 1980s I worked in a building in Chicago that was next to the Commodities Exchange. People would come and go between buildings, so I saw a lot of the people from the Commodities Exchange. They were on something then; turned out to be cocaine, I guess. Sure! It revved up something in them; they claimed they needed it to do their work efficiently; but I think they were just high. Now while I know that the “nootopics” are not the same as cocaine, it does seem to me that a cup of strong coffee might do about the same thing as green tea or the combo of pills. (Again, if I understand this correctly.)

    I’ve seen people over my life time claim they had discovered the PERFECT thing to make them live a long and productive life. Sadly, they died in the same age range most people do. I remember one woman on Johnny Carson selling her latest book; I think she was touting grains as a sure fire thing to prevent cancer. Too soon after she was on promoting her book, she came down with cancer and, like the rest of us will, she died. Respectfully, I could not keep myself from thinking: Well, so much for grains.

    But I also would not say people should NOT take such supplements. Whatever floats the boat, so to say. As you mention, I think, the placebo effect, if nothing else, may be very effective at helping people at least think they will live longer; and that’s probably a good thing as it actually may be effective in living somewhat longer; and if nothing else, it may allow people to have less distress about how long they may live.

    I tend to think that long life is a genetic thing; if one has genes that are the “long-lived” genes, then their lives will be long; if not, then their lives will not be long. AND I also am not averse to thinking that the “long-lived” genes may also be inheritable and a more dominant gene; thus extending life as the generations proceed.

    People DO live longer these days than they did long ago. A lot of that long life has to do with the kind of life lived. Back in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the average age of men was somewhere in near the early thirties, if I remember correctly. Lots of men died in wars fought and were wounded with hardly any medical help at all. If they got even a “simple” a wound, it likely meant the end of life for the man. I am sure that the average age of women was twenty-five; so women many died in childbirth; pregnancy was practically a death sentence. Often children born were not named officially until their first year had passed; so many babies died in the first twelve months of life. People made it a point of not becoming too attached to the newborn; one never knew if it would live.

    Then again, I wonder about people who do strenuous exercises: How are they going to feel about exercise 20 or 30 years from now when arthritis and other bone problems kick in. Then too, I read football players have a proven brain issue called (I think) CTE caused by repeated concussion; yet men still want to continue playing that “game”. They are going to have a serious problem sooner rather than later.

    On the one hand people want to live long; on the other they can’t stop doing what is harmful to their bodies. A strange mixture.

    So society, science, so much of tho’t itself has changed over the last five or six hundred years (to say nothing of the change in the last 50 to 75 years) that life has been extended for everybody. But these reasons for extended life are not pills, altho I will admit that pills would be much better than some other ways to extend life.

    Another thing I think of is the lack of respect generally given to old people. If that lack of respect for age does not proceed along with extended life, I tend to think few people will care to live long.

    Well, as I say: Each individual should do what’s important to him/her. Perhaps someday seventy-five will be middle age! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 1, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

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