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Archive of ‘mental performance’ category

Flaxseeds: single most important food for mental health?


by R. Aiken MD PhD @rcaiken

Flaxseed helps lower cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, is anti-inflammatory, has good anti-oxidants, and fiber.  It is the single most neuroprotective food; oh yes, then there is the omega-3 content.

There is no doubt that this food is an excellent source of essential omega-3 fats in the form of alpha-linolenic acid, the basic building block to other omega-3s – eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Omega-3, and a proper omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, is important in mental wellness and recovery from psychiatric disorders.

But flaxseed offers more than just the ideal omega-3 source; it contains many polyphenolic compounds such as phenolic acids[1], flavonoids and lignans along with vitamins C and E[2].  One study found that flaxseed significantly decreased chronic stress (cortisol) levels, indicating a possible synergistic effect between omega-3 fatty acid and polyphenols[3].  Other components such as a flaxseed lignan (a phytoestrogen compound called secoisolariciresinol) has been shown to have possible applications in post-menopausal depression[4].

Studies of flaxseed oil supplementation have indicated a good tolerance even in the pediatric population where one study indicated its effectiveness in child bipolar disorder[5].

I recommend a daily intake of one to three tablespoons of ground flax, each tablespoon of which contains about 30 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 2 grams fiber, and 1.5 grams protein[6]. Be sure to grind the flaxseeds as the fine seeds with their hard shell will likely just pass on through the gut otherwise. Flaxseeds can be ground in a coffee bean grinder and the ground powder added to grains, salads, beans – practically any dish for a little texture.

Note that the shelf life of the oily seeds is limited unless kept in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.  Ground flaxseeds or flax meal should be kept in the freezer; at room temperature and exposed to air, use the ground seeds within one week. Smell the flax – if it has a strong odor such as fishy smell, it may be rancid.  A taste test should reveal a mild nutty flavor – if bitter or sour that also may be a signal that it is rancid.

For these reasons, chia seeds, rich in antioxidants and omega-3 PUFAs may be preferable to some.


[1] Oomah, B. D., Kenaschuk, E. O., & Mazza, G. (1995). Phenolic Acids in Flaxseed. J. Agric. Food Chem. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 43(8), 2016-2019. doi:10.1021/jf00056a011.

[2] Bidlack, W. W. (1999). Functional Foods: Biochemical and Processing Aspects, G. Mazza, ed. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co., Inc., 437 pp, 1998. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 18(6), 640-641. doi:10.1080/07315724.1999.10718899.

[3] Naveen, S., Siddalingaswamy, M., Singsit, D., & Khanum, F. (2013). Anti-depressive effect of polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acid from pomegranate peel and flax seed in mice exposed to chronic mild stress. Psychiatry Clin Neurosci Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 67(7), 501-508. doi:10.1111/pcn.12100.

[4] Wang, Y., Xu, Z., Yang, D., Yao, H., Ku, B., Ma, X., . . . Cai, S. (2012). The antidepressant effect of secoisolariciresinol, a lignan-type phytoestrogen constituent of flaxseed, on ovariectomized mice. Journal of Natural Medicines,67(1), 222-227. doi:10.1007/s11418-012-0655-x.

[5] Gracious, B. L., Chirieac, M. C., Costescu, S., Finucane, T. L., Youngstrom, E. A., & Hibbeln, J. R. (2010). Randomized, placebo-controlled trial of flax oil in pediatric bipolar disorder. Bipolar Disorders, 12(2), 142-154. doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2010.00799.x.

[6] A very convenient way to have ground flax ready to serve is provided by Carrington Farms Organic Ground Milled Flax Seeds, two tablespoon packets sealed and lasting without refrigeration about one year.

Ashwagandha roots for exercise recovery, insomnia, and cognitive health



The root of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is used extensively in Ayurveda, the classical Indian system of medicine, and is categorized as a rasayana, an herbal remedy used to promote physical and mental health[1].

There are many claims concerning the health benefits of Ashwagandha root and most all of them concern reduction of adrenal stress (anxiety) and reduction of inflammation; there are many peer reviewed studies, including systematic review summaries that are rather convincing.  Positive influences on neurodegenerative diseases such as cognitive decline and dementias have been suggested[2].

It is likely helpful to ingest this substance after exercise, particularly endurance workouts or heavy lifting (supposedly it helps to stimulate muscle recovery).

Also this Ayurvedic has been used to help treat insomnia.

The amount suggested by the literature studies is one-half teaspoon, about 1600 mg.


[1] Bhattacharya, S., Bhattacharya, A., Sairam, K., & Ghosal, S. (2000). Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: An experimental study. Phytomedicine, 7(6), 463-469. doi:10.1016/ s0944-7113(00)80030-6.

[2] Manchanda, S., Mishra, R., Singh, R., Kaur, T., & Kaur, G. (2016). Aqueous Leaf Extract of Withania somnifera as a Potential Neuroprotective Agent in Sleep-deprived Rats: A Mechanistic Study. Molecular Neurobiology Mol Neurobiol. doi:10.1007/s12035-016-9883-5.

Rhodiola for physical and mental performance


by Richard Aiken MD PhD @rcaiken

A systematic review of numerous randomized placebo-controlled studies of Rhodiola rosea showed beneficial effects on physical performance, mental performance, and in mild to moderate depression[1]. For example, one Swedish phase II randomized placebo-controlled study over a six-week clinical trial concluded[2]:

“R. rosea possesses a clear and significant anti-depressive activity in patients suffering from mild to moderate depression. When administered in a dosage of two tablets, each containing 170 mg of extract, daily over a 6-week period, statistical significant reduction in the overall symptom level of depression as well as in specific symptoms of depression, such as insomnia, emotional instability and somatization, could be demonstrated. In higher doses, four tablets per day over a 6-week period, an additional positive effect could be shown. No side-effects resulting from treatment could be detected in any group of the groups”.

Therefore, doses of about 300 – 600 mg were effective in that study.

The mechanism of action may be inhibition of monoamine re-uptake (such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline), enhanced binding and sensitization of serotonin receptors, monoamine oxidase inhibition, and neuro-endocrine modulation[3].  Rhodiola is apparently adaptogenic, meaning that it does its good deeds without disturbing normal biologic functions.

I’m not sure if it is an herb (plant leaf, stem, or flower used for flavoring or medicinal use) or a spice (same as herb but a root).  The aerial portion (above ground plant) is used as a food. However, various alternative names for the plant include “root,” such as the “red root” and the powder is a deep red so I assume that the medicinal part is primarily a root and therefore technically a spice.

Rhodiola Rosea 3% Salidroside Powder (100 grams) costs about $18[4].  I use a little less than one eighth of a teaspoon, about 300 mg (a cost of about ten cents).  I’m unsure of where this was harvested although it can grow on cold rocky slopes in the USA; it has been suggested to aid those living in very cold stressful environments where it grows, such as Siberia and Scandinavia. It has a shelf life of three or more years.

[1] Hung, S. K., Perry, R., & Ernst, E. (2011). The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: A systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Phytomedicine, 18(4), 235-244. doi:10.1016/ j.phymed. 2010.08.014.

[2] Darbinyan, V., Aslanyan, G., Amroyan, E., Gabrielyan, E., Malmström, C., & Panossian, A. (2007). Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 61(5), 343-348. doi:10.1080/08039480701643290.

[3] Kumar, V. (2006). Potential medicinal plants for CNS disorders: An overview.Phytother. Res. Phytotherapy Research, 20(12), 1023-1035. doi:10.1002/ptr.1970

[4] My source for this is from Bulk Supplements ( – I order from Amazon and guided in my selection in part by happy consumers who have tried it and like it on some basis.