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Brain Boosters : For The Winter Blues & Blahs
Your strongest muscle is, and has always been, between your ears.

Eons ago, pre-humans evolved big brains, which allowed us to avoid or beat-out predators, maximize our reproductive potential, and populate the whole planet at the expense of other species. And we've obviously done a great job at that! The brain is of course a tissue, and has nutritional needs like any other tissue. But it is also a special tissue with special influences, like determining your mood and level of motivation, the perceived difficulty of a workout, your level of concentration during a workout, and your willingness to train at all. Fortunately, the non-prescription world of nutrients and herbal extracts provides great tools to optimize brain function and get that grey matter working for you instead of against you.

Using Supplements to Boost Motivation and Discipline

Few things are worse than fatigue, procrastination and inner laziness. We all need to be willing to power through resistance and do the things that get us closer to our conscious goals. And there is a simple neurochemical mechanism that can help. Motivation and "drive" are determined to some extent by the levels of dopamine and related neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine is the stimulating, "upper" neurotranmitter that is released by drugs like amphetamine and cocaine. If you've ever been foolish enough to experiment with such drugs, you know the tremendous "I can do ANYTHING!" feeling that they produce. Laziness and fatigue vanish. Suddenly you're Superman. Unfortunately, those drugs damage the brain, while causing an equal-and-opposite "crash" after the high, so using them is not worth it. But you can do something similar with harmless nutrients and herbs. The amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are the precursors of dopamine and similar stimulant neurotransmitters. And when those precursors are combined with herbal and other extracts that act as "pathway drivers", pulling the precursors into the pathways that produce more dopamine, the effect can be gratifying, even exhilarating. OK, granted, you won't get high like on cocaine -- but then you won't fry your brain, crash like a dog, or get arrested, either! Another great thing about these combinations: the dopamine class of neurotransmitters -- including norepinephrine -- is wonderful for stimulating thermogenesis and fat-burning! How about that for a "side effect"? But fat-burning or no, this stuff will give you a mood boost, improved mental and physical performance, better concentration and focus, and enhanced motivation. Such a deal. The "pathway drivers" include old friends like high-EGCG green tea extract, cocoa extracts, and caffeine. You need some of these "drivers" or else the results with the amino acids will not be great. Use multi-gram doses of tyrosine and phenylalanine -- a couple grams of each, first thing in the morning, works good -- combined with a wallop of green tea or cocoa extract, and extra-strong coffee (or pure caffeine). You'll take off quickly and will be cruising at medium altitude for most of the day.
One more thing: red pepper also works great as a "driver". It is a stimulant, an absorption enhancer, and a potentiator of whatever else you use with it. Try a quarter-teaspoon of the powdered herb, or a capsule or two, along with the aminos and extracts. Drink plenty of water. And remember, if you get the jitters, back off on the dosage of all this stuff!
Avoiding Winter Depression and the "Blahs"
As we enter the winter season, many of us in the Northern latitudes have trouble with seasonal depression -- called "Seasonal Affective Disorder", or SAD. It is caused by lack of sunshine -- light itself being a powerful antidepressant -- and possibly by lack of vitamin D and/or too much melatonin. People with SAD become sluggish, lazy, and socially withdrawn, spending long hours in bed. They also tend to eat like pigs, especially carbohydrates. So, what do you do if you have SAD, or something like it? Several things. First -- the no-brainer -- get out into the sunshine as much as is practical. Get out in the middle of the day, or whenever it is clear and sunny, for at least a half-hour, and preferably longer. Think of sunshine as "Vitamin S" for SAD. Next, control the carb cravings and the depression with natural serotonin boosters like 5-HTP (griffonia extract, standardized on 5-HTP). 5-HTP is the direct precursor of serotonin, and it works for some people like a charm. Team it up with a standardized extract of St John's Wort (.3% hypericin) for a synergistic serotonin boost that can blow away all but the most severe cases of depression. Really! Try this combination. It is the safe, economical alternative to the sometimes-dangerous SSRI drugs like Prozac, which boost serotonin by a different mechanism. If you must resort to SSRI drugs, then split the tabs in half or thirds and take the absolute minimum that you need, always combined with nutrients and herbal extracts. You will find that a good serotonin-boost has many beneficial effects, including helping to ensure easy, sound sleep, and cutting down on carb and junk food cravings. For SAD, don't neglect the aminos/herbals combination described above: tyrosine, phenylalanine, and the "pathway drivers". These, too, are powerful mood-boosters which also combat the morning sluggishness of SAD. Start the day with a stack of aminos, extracts and red pepper, and use 5-HTP and St John's Wort later in the day, for a dual-action brain and mood boost. The St John's Wort will also help the tyrosine and phenylalanine get converted into antidepressant neurotransmitters. Consider using standardized cocoa extract as the preferred "pathway driver". Why? Because cocoa extract contains the antidepressant, amphetamine-like compound phenethylamine. This chemical is the "love drug": the brain makes a lot of it when you are in love, or otherwise feeling on top of the world. There's some of it in cocoa and chocolate, which explains why many people describe themselves as "chocolate addicts" -- and why depressed people sometimes get very heavy into chocolate! The chocolate is a sort of "medication" that makes them feel better. You can do the same thing with cocoa extracts, while avoiding that load of sugar, fat and calories that come with milk chocolate. A good standardized cocoa extract will give you the Right Stuff, without wrecking your diet/physique plans for the next year.
One last tip: Be sure to use plenty of supplementary chromium -- the insulin action-boosting trace element. Chromium alone has been shown to have an antidepressant effect comparable in some people to the Prozac-type drugs. Chromium was even patented for this purpose. By enhancing insulin action, chromium probably increases the uptake by the brain of all the neurotransmitter precursors -- tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine. But whatever the mechanism, the stuff seems to work, and it is harmless and cheap, to boot. Do it.
The Brain-Booster with the Muscle-Building "Side Effect"
It is always great when you find something that does double duty -- like the amino/extract combinations that boost energy and mood while also burning fat. It is like "buy one, get one free". Buy Super PS Well, here's another: phosphatidylserine (fas-fa-tide-eel-sir-een). This is a phospholipid, like lecithin (phosphatidylcholine), but a very special one. It's main documented action is as a phenomenal brain-booster and protector. Dozens of scientific studies have demonstrated beyond doubt that it prevents age-related brain damage, and stimulates re-growth of critical areas that are thought responsible for memory and other brain functions. Further, blinded and placebo-controlled human trials have shown that phosphatidylserine ( PS) is effective as a cognition-enhancer in a variety of brain diseases, from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. This stuff is truly fantastic. And to top it off, it is extremely safe. There've been no reported side effects of any kind. It is about as harmful as lecithin itself (which is about as harmful as olive oil). So now you're convinced that PS is a cool brain-booster. But what about that "muscle-building 'side effect'"? Yes, I was getting to that! PS intervenes in a very fundamental way with a common hormonal response that can limit and even halt your training progress: cortisol surges. When you're under stress (and hard training is a stress) your body releases cortisol. And as you probably recall from Muscle-Building 101, cortisol is the body's great catabolic hormone, opposing the anabolic action of insulin and testosterone.

High cortisol levels can zap muscle gains, increase the risk of injury, cause the "overtraining syndrome" (with increased susceptibility to infections), and even make that "beer belly" even more devilishly hard to get rid of than it already is.

Yep. Cortisol really does do all those nasty things. This is not the place for a long technical description of precisely how; you'll have to trust me. Cortisol really is the bad guy. And that's why the action of PS to reduce cortisol surges -- stress episodes during which the blood cortisol level skyrockets -- is so important. This is the action that we've all been needing to optimize anabolism where we want it (the skeletal muscles) while limiting it where we don't want it (our abdominal fat). Feeding trials have shown that weight guys using PS supplements have reduced cortisol and ACTH levels after their workouts. Not only that, but PS supplements reduced post-training muscle soreness, and helped boost mood in trainers who had been overtraining. And PS supplements elevate mood in non-training neurotic and depressed people, as well. The mood-boost effect is very important. You see, one of the biochemical "symptoms" of depression is elevated cortisol levels -- levels which the body seems unable to bring back down. Cortisol breaks down more than lean muscle; it breaks down tryptophan, the amino acid that is supposed to get turned into 5-HTP and serotonin. (See how all this fits together?) So high cortisol levels are probably part of the cause of depression, as well as the overtraining syndrome, and the Can't-Seem-To-Gain-Muscle Syndrome that we all know so well. Bad, bad stuff. But with PS supplements and a few other odds and ends, we can keep the cortisol levels (and those nasty syndromes) under control. Start with 2-300 mgs per day of a good PS. You can use more, but it is expensive, and the studies indicate that 2-300 mgs will probably do the job, especially if you combine it with other stuff. The other stuff includes, first, ascorbic acid ( vitamin C), of which everyone should be taking at least a few grams per day. Ascorbic acid helps the adrenal glands to produce DHEA instead of cortisol. (One or the other is going to get produced; see to it that it is DHEA, and not cortisol.) Second, DHEA itself has been shown to have broad-spectrum anti-cortisol actions; this is another "basic" that you should be using at the rate of 25-50 mgs per day.

Conclusion It's easy and inexpensive to give your brain a winter-time tune-up to boost mood, performance, confidence, energy, and motivation. Not to mention joie de vivre, esprit de corps, and any other fancy French ways of saying the same thing. Life is too short to feel gloomy and hesitant. Get started with this stuff and look forward to an upbeat and productive winter. 
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