Feed Your Brain – How To Prevent Cognitive Decline

Feed Your Head – Transcribed Conversation With Durk & Sandy

DURK: Everything that happens in your brain, every memory, every thought, every emotion, every innovation, every “wow, that’s great!” is a result of the release of neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are not drugs; they are natural substances made by nerve cells in your brain that transmit messages from one nerve cell to another across the synapse that divides them. That’s why they are called neurotransmitters. They are made the nutrients in your diet, but there is a very good chance that even if you have a good diet, you’re not getting the optimum amount of the raw materials that your brain can use to make neurotransmitters.

The three most important neurotransmitters have been known for a long time: acetylcholine, noradrenaline, and dopamine.

Acetylcholine is involved in memory and organization, the way you order things in your mind, the way you retrieve them in an orderly manner. It’s also involved in focus and concentration.

A good example of what happens if you don’t have enough cholinergic activity can be found in a person who has taken the psychoactive drug atropine or any other anticholinergic drug. In many respects, they resemble someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

The latter are people who have suffered extensive damage to their cholinergic nervous system: they lose their memories, lose their focus, and lose their ability to concentrate.

What do you do to improve your cholinergic memory? Take choline and Vitamin B5. The vitamin B5 (also known as pantothenate) acts to convert the choline to acetylcholine more efficiently.

Now there’s a very good reason to take choline as you get older, because as you get older the ability of your blood-brain-barrier to actively transport choline from your bloodstream into your brain drops dramatically. By the time you’re in your 60’s most people have perhaps 20 or 30 percent of their young adult capability of transporting choline from the blood stream into your brain.

SANDY: You can compensate for this by taking a choline supplement, choline plus vitamin B5, making it possible for more choline to be transported into your brain.

DURK: And if you don’t do this, something very unfortunate happens as you get older. The cholinergic system is a “use it or lose it” type system; that is, it requires continuous cholinergic stimulation to release neurotrophic growth factors. Without neurotrophic growth factors the cholinergic nerves start dying off. In fact, in order to make acetylcholine as you get older, your brain will start cannibalizing other brain cells for the choline contained in the cell membranes as phosphatidylcholine.

Eventually, you start losing your cholinergic nervous system. You don’t notice the results of this immediately. Typically, it takes about an 80 percent neuron loss before people notice that they are doing more than just slowing down. Their memory isn’t quite as quick as it used to be or as sharp; it takes more time to do things. As time goes on, simple memory tasks become more and more difficult. So to keep your mind working properly especially as you get older or especially if you’re working very hard, like cramming for a test, you need more of these raw materials to make acetylcholine.

WILL: What is a good amount of choline and vitamin B5 to compensate for the loss, especially with age?

DURK: The U.S. Government asked the Institute of Medicine to determine whether choline was an essential nutrient or not. And they found that, yes, it is an essential nutrient for human beings; you can make a limited amount in your liver, but that’s not enough even when you’re young.

SANDY: They determined that about 550 mg a day would be required for a male adult.

DURK: And 425 mg for an adult female. However, all their data was derived from young college students who acted as subjects in medical experiments. They didn’t consider the fact that as people get older, their ability to transport choline into the brain, which is a major user of choline, is impaired. We think people should start out, for the first week, taking about 1 g of choline, and 2/3 of a gram of pantothenate each day. During the second week, these amounts should be doubled to 2 grams of choline and about a 1 1/2 gram of pantothenate per day. And in the third week, go to 3 grams of choline a day and a couple of grams of pantothenate per day. Now, it wouldn’t harm you to immediately jump to 3 grams per day. It’s just that you might possibly end up with a little constipation or tension headache because acetylcholine is what makes your muscles contract as well. If you take too much too fast, quicker than your body can adapt to the increased amount, you may end up with excessive muscle tension. The first symptom of this muscle tension is usually a stiff neck. I might add that choline is also important for cardiovascular health as well. One of the major risk factors for somebody dying of a heart attack is the inability of their heart to slow down rapidly after exercise. This pulse rate reduction is due to cholinergic stimulation by the vagus nerve. If you don’t have enough choline in your diet, you may be at increased risk for this particular problem.

SANDY: Acetylcholine is also involved in the relaxation of arteries. Which is another one of the things that deteriorates in the development of atherosclerosis; arteries simply do not dilate properly and as a result, your ability to control blood pressure is reduced.

DURK: In fact, the mechanism by which acetylcholine helps dilate arteries is by turning on an enzyme called nitric oxide synthetase found in the lining of the arteries. This enzyme turns the amino acid arginine into nitric oxide which then causes the arteries to dilate. That’s the same mechanism that gives you erections as well. Acetylcholine is involved in muscular contraction. You may think that if you have very intense and prolonged muscle contraction, like running a marathon, you might run low on choline and not be able to make the optimum amount of acetylcholine? And the answer to that is, absolutely yes.

SANDY: In long marathons, choline resources are limited.

DURK: It has been found that giving marathon runners choline, which is completely legal under athletic association rules, that you can run a marathon a little bit faster. And that is a lot when the time separating the winner from the second best may only be a matter of seconds. So especially as you get older you want to be sure you’re providing your brain with adequate amounts of choline and vitamin B5 to be sure you can make acetylcholine to help maintain youthful type mental function, rather than slowly tapering off into the sunset.

WILL: We reported recently on a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that showed a correspondence between choline deficiency and high homocysteine levels.

DURK: Yes, in fact choline is involved in converting homocysteine back into cysteine. Homocysteine, you think of toxic byproducts as being something that oil refineries or automobiles make when they burn fuel. Yes, they make toxic byproducts, but, surprise, surprise, your own body makes toxic byproducts as well. And one of them is homocysteine. And in fact, choline can act as a methyl group donator to turn homocysteine, which can cause atherosclerosis and is associated with strokes, back into cysteine, which is a useful antioxidant nutrient amino acid, unlike homocysteine which is pro-oxidant and is causally involved in causing an increase in the incidents of strokes as well as hypertension.

WILL: Moving over to the other two neurotransmitters.

DURK: Noradrenaline is nature’s natural speed. It is your “get up and go” juice. But unlike speed, it doesn’t cause free radical damage that burns out the neurons in your brain. Noradrenaline, if you have enough of it you’re full of energy, you’re excited, you’re self confident. If you don’t have enough of it…

SANDY: You can be depressed, but you’re certainly going to be having less energy, less drive. You may just lose interest in doing most things.

DURK: If you have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and maybe even feel like you’d like to go jump out a window, except its too much trouble, chances are you’re suffering from an inadequate supply of noradrenaline. Now, if you’re seriously depressed you do need to go see a doctor because there are a lot of other things that could be responsible. Such as hypothyroidism or some things that are a lot more complicated like too much cortisol being produced.

But in the case of people who, getting older, don’t have the spring to their mental step they did when they were teenagers, it’s because their noradrenaline levels drop off with age. And noradrenaline also causes the release of neurotrophic factors that help the noradrenergic nerve grow as well. So again, it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Fortunately, you can make noradrenaline from either the essential amino acid tyrosine or the nonessential amino acid phenylalanine. You also need the help of some essential nutrients, specifically vitamin B6, C, and the mineral copper. And a lot of people are deficient in copper; a lot of people aren’t getting the RDA of copper. So its not surprising that the number one complaint people bring to their physicians is they just don’t have enough energy. And part of it may be because they’re only getting 6 hours of sleep a night, and part of it may be because they’re getting older and they’re making less noradrenaline.

Now in our formulations, we use phenylalanine rather than tyrosine because you cannot convert tyrosine into a neuromodulator called beta-phenethylamine. Neuromodulators modulate the effect of neurotransmitters, they turn up the effects or turn them down. Beta-phenethylamine turns up the effects of noradrenaline and by giving the person a phenylalanine, vitamin B6, copper, vitamin C combination, we’re actually able to give people the system of nutrients that their brain can use to make more beta-phenethylamine and more noradrenaline. So if you’re “get up and go” has “got up and went”, get yourself one of our formulations with the phenylalanine and the necessary nutrient cofactors to make it into noradrenaline.

WILL: Would you say that beta-phenethylamine is kind of a kick start modulator?

DURK: It sure is, and in fact it is thought to be involved in the mechanism, the euphoria of being in love. Beta-phenethylamine levels do go up when people are in love, but I’ll also add that it’s found in chocolate. Chocolate is probably your richest food source of it. But you can make the stuff in your brain if you have adequate phenylalanine (not tyrosine), vitamin B6 and adequate copper which we provide in all of our phenylalanine-containing formulations.

Now, noradrenaline works very well in conjunction with caffeine. That first cup of coffee you drink in the morning gives you a real lift. It makes you work faster and harder and more accurately and with less effort. Yet, by the middle of the afternoon, drinking another cup of coffee may just make you space out, jittery, nervous, bad tempered. What’s going on here is pretty simple. There are two mechanisms by which caffeine works. One is that it antagonizes adenosine receptors and this is something we won’t get into, but it is one of the mechanisms by which caffeine keeps you awake. Another is that it makes you release noradrenaline in your synapses and also makes you more sensitive to noradrenaline because it preserves the effect of the second neurotransmitter, cyclic AMP.

SANDY: It’s called the second messenger.

DURK: Noradrenaline crosses the synaptic gap, and the reason it produces a signal in the receiving nerve is that is causes the production of cyclic AMP, the second messenger. Caffeine slows the rate at which the cyclic AMP is destroyed. Just like Viagra® slows the rate at which nitric oxide-stimulated cyclic GMP is destroyed. And so you get a stronger message. If you take a little bit of caffeine along with the phenylalanine and cofactors combination, you get a much better lift, and much longer lasting lift than taking just the caffeine alone. In fact, Sandy and I always take our choline formulation and our phenylalanine plus cofactors plus a little bit of caffeine formulation before we do any lectures and that’s the reason we’re able to remember all of this stuff and put it together in a way people can understand.

SANDY: We’ve discovered by experience that getting up far earlier than we normally do in the morning and having to do television shows during which you’re lucky if you get two minutes, you have to talk very fast, and have answers to questions. Meaning, you can’t spend any time thinking about the answers. Do this all day and it totally fatigues you; you’re depleting your supply of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and noradrenaline and you just don’t have the ability to do a very good job of answering questions real fast. So that is originally how we developed these formulas, in order to help us to perform better while we were on publicity tours for our first book, Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach.

DURK: We developed a choline formulation back in the late 1970’s and it had a dramatic effect on Sandy. We started writing the book in ’78 and didn’t yet have a word processor so we were typing all of this stuff up. I literally had to take scissors and cut Sandy’s stuff apart and reassemble it in a different order. What she said was right but not well organized and it was literally cut and paste. Naturally, Sandy got a bit pissed off about that but once she started taking the choline supplement it was like everything flowed in the proper order. It was all organized when it came out of her fingers to the typewriter.

SANDY: It was effortless. It was one of those things that if you’re a writer and the words are flowing it just feels completely differently than when you’re writing and it feels as though you’re squeezing the last toothpaste out of the tube.

DURK: We had our choline formulation for the first tour for Life Extension, but we had not yet developed the phenylalanine plus cofactors formulation. And after 5 weeks on the road doing all those TV and radio shows, newspaper, magazine interviews, boy our get up and go, got up and went. So we decided to figure out what was going on; we were using noradrenaline a heck of a lot faster than we were able to make it. So we fixed that by providing the right formula to enable us to make more and the next tour was so much easier.

SANDY: It was easier to do a good job all day and we felt better at the end of the day, we weren’t as fatigued.

WILL: How much phenylalanine do you recommend people take on a daily basis? Or is it dependent upon what they’re doing?

DURK: Well, it depends on what they’re doing. For example, I particularly like a version of our formulation which has green tea polyphenols in it that are potent antioxidants, and have some psychoactive effects, they make colors brighter, make you feel cheerful, they’re a natural upper. In addition, it has phenylalanine and cofactors and 40 mg of caffeine which is the same amount you would get in a Coke®, which is actually about 50 mg. It’s the same amount you have in two cups of green tea. I normally use about 2 servings a day. One as soon as I get up, and the other in mid-afternoon when I start slowing down. But if I’m doing something really complex and mind numbing, like filing out my income tax with schedule A, B, C, D, E and F, I’ll use more. When I’m doing something really mind numbing like that or writing for a deadline, I may consume 5 or 6 servings a day. However, you don’t want to take it too close to bedtime or you are not going to get to sleep.

Now if you don’t like the effects of caffeine, we have our formulation, which has the phenylalanine and cofactors, but no caffeine. There are some people who are sensitive to caffeine and don’t like it. If we have to do a lecture at 10 o’clock at night, we’re certainly not going to take caffeine because we won’t get to sleep that night, but we will take phenylalanine along with our choline plus vitamin B5 formulation.

WILL: I’m curious, has anyone every attempted to determine the essentiality of phenylalanine or tyrosine, and set daily values? And if not, why not?

DURK: Well, tyrosine is an essential nutrient. And phenylalanine can be converted to tyrosine in your body so that is not considered an essential nutrient because you can replace it with tyrosine. However, as I mentioned tyrosine doesn’t help you make beta-phenethylamine. Scientists conducted a double-blind, placebo-control study on human beings that were subjected to very long hours of hard work; they were basically taking a test for several hours. They found that the tyrosine was an anti-fatigue agent that didn’t produce an excitatory effect, it didn’t act as an upper whereas the phenylalanine acted both for anti-fatigue and as an upper. So we prefer the phenylalanine for that reason.

WILL: You recommend between 1 and 3 grams of choline plus cofactors per day. What are your recommendations for phenylalanine plus cofactors?

DURK: For phenylalanine, it depends on the individual. Any where from half a gram to 3 grams per day. And I might add the choline plus vitamin B5 formulation can be taken at any time, including with food though of course, if the food remains in your stomach while being digested for awhile, there will be a delay before the choline is absorbed. In the case of the phenylalanine plus cofactors supplement, for best effects you want to take that on an empty stomach because other large amino acids in the diet can interfere with the passage of phenylalanine across the blood brain barrier.

SANDY: Certain amino acids compete to be carried across and there is limited capacity for carrying them.

DURK: For example, if you eat a big hamburger you could easily get yourself a half a gram of phenylalanine, however its likely to put you to sleep rather than waking you up because there are other things in there like the amino acid tryptophan that will interfere with phenylalanine crossing the blood brain barrier and that acts as a sedative. So you want to take phenylalanine on an empty stomach.

WILL: What about dopamine?

DURK: Now dopamine is closely related to noradrenaline; dopamine is involved in memory and motor coordination and…

SANDY: And it’s also involved importantly in reward. Whenever you do something that makes you feel good about doing it; that is due to release of dopamine.

DURK: In fact, the reason that opiates are rewarding is that they cause the release of dopamine in part of your brain. You might think that everything that’s going to give increased amounts of dopamine is going to be potentially addictive. The answer to this is, “no, it isn’t” and for a very simple reason. The dopamine can be made from tyrosine and phenylalanine, so when you take our phenylalanine plus cofactors you’re able to make more dopamine too. And why isn’t this addictive? It has very simply been a normal part of the diet for a billion years. The bugs have been worked out. When you take something like opium, which hasn’t been a part of the diet, you can get into trouble, like addiction. When you take phenylalanine, you’re not going to have that problem because all of those problems are buried back about a billion years. A good example of what happens when you don’t have enough dopamine is Parkinson’s disease. In addition to problems with memory, the person is very unhappy because their reward system isn’t working, and further, they lack adequate motor coordination. In general, there is a real detriment in the quality of life. And again, this is something that happens gradually as you get older. You don’t start getting Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s the day you’re diagnosed.

SANDY: Actually, you have to have about 80% destruction of the dopamine neurons before you notice any symptoms of Parkinson’s. So what that means is that by the time Parkinson’s shows up, you’ve already suffered the majority of the damage you’re going to experience.

DURK: And our formulations can be helpful in getting you off stimulants such as cocaine, because cocaine works by causing a release of noradrenaline and blocking the synaptic reuptake and recycling of dopamine. So you only temporarily have more noradrenaline and dopamine. The problem is very simple: cocaine doesn’t help you make any more neurotransmitters, and so you get the same effect, you have to take more and more and more.

SANDY: Your supply gets depleted in addition to the free radical damage that takes place. And when you deplete your noradrenaline and dopamine supply you suffer a crash, the notorious crash that takes place for people who use cocaine or speed. And at that point, people can become extremely depressed and it’s a very serious problem.

DURK: In fact we knew a very talented rock singer who wrote very energetic, speedy music and he was hooked on methamphetamine, and he knew it was killing him. He asked us if we knew anything that could help. He didn’t like the effects of caffeine at all, so we suggested the use of phenylalanine and suggested that this might help him use less. He surprised us by going off meth entirely. He was able to kick speed and continue to write energetic music through the use of phenylalanine. We certainly don’t want to guarantee that will happen to everyone, but if you’re using stimulants, I might suggest that the phenylalanine formulations might really help you reduce the amount you’re taking or help you find something you like better.

WILL: Are there any other neurotransmitters worth mentioning?

DURK: Yes, nitric oxide which is made from arginine. In fact, it is a neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine, noradrenaline, and dopamine have been known for three quarters of a century, whereas knowledge of nitric oxide as a neurotransmitter is much more recent. It’s important in learning and memory and the mechanism by which a short term memory is turned into a long turn memory has only been known for about 15 years. And nitric oxide is also involved in learning a new motor sequence; for example, if you want to learn to play golf you want to have plenty of arginine in you.

SANDY: Nitric oxide is also needed to allow your arteries to dilate, to widen, in order to allow more blood flow. This is the way your body is able to adjust blood flow to areas that need more such as muscles during muscle activity.

The Durk Pearson & Sandy ShawLife Extension NewsTM


from the Chicago Tribune


Step aside, blueberries, spinach and broccoli. It’s time to give unsung superfoods a chance.

Many of us tend to eat what we know and what we can pronounce and prepare. But mixing things up helps add more healthful micronutrients and phytochemicals into our diets, said Mary Russell, director of nutrition services at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Trying little-known foods also gets you into ethnic grocery stores, farmers markets and local markets that focus on sustainable, local food, Russell said. “That’s where you can learn from others how to buy, prepare and use unusual foods.”

To help steer your cart in a new direction, try incorporating these 10 healthful foods that you probably aren’t eating – but should be – into your diet.


An ancient relative of durum wheat, kamut increasingly is used as an alternative to regular wheat. It has 20 to 40 percent more protein and is higher in lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Moreover, it can be tolerated by some with sensitivities to regular wheat. Kamut can be found in some packaged pastas, bread, cereals and crackers.

Try it: Kamut is usually found in the bulk section of supermarkets. Substitute it for wheat berries or rice or mix with sauteed peppers and onions. For breakfast, mix a half-cup with diced apples, raisins, walnuts and a touch of cinnamon and honey.

Dandelion greens

One of the first vegetables to come to the farmers market – and your yard – in the spring, dandelion greens are low in calories and high in fiber. But a serving (1 cup) of these dark, leafy greens also has more vitamin A than a cup of cantaloupe and more calcium than spinach, said dietitian Jodi Greebel, president of Citrition, a nutritional counseling practice in New York City. They’re also high in iron, other vitamins (including vitamin C), potassium and folate.

Try them: They’re somewhat bitter so you might not want to toss them in salads. Instead, try cooking them with something sweet – say a chicken or pasta dish with tomatoes – or adding nuts and dried fruit, Greebel said. Or saute with garlic and pepper.


Grapefruit is in peak season through April and its juice boasts more nutrients per calorie than 100 percent apple, grape, pineapple and prune juice. Each serving (1 cup of juice) gives you more than 100 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C, which helps neutralize free radicals that can damage cells and lead to infection, aging and disease. It can boost the performance of some medications – but it can interfere with others – so check with your doctor if you take prescription drugs.

Try them: Top with a spoonful of maple syrup, or a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves, or use as a topping on cereal, waffles, pancakes or in a yogurt parfait.


Made from fermented soybeans, this traditional Indonesian food looks strange but it may ease symptoms of menopause because it contains phytochemicals such as isoflavones and saponins, said Russell. The soy protein and isoflavones also might reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Try it: Slice and saute. Its nutty, mushroom flavor can be used in soups, salads and sandwiches, according to author Jonny Bowden in “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.”


Sea vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements. The kelp family (kombu, wakame and arame) is an excellent source of iodine and has about four times the iron of beef. Arame has more than 10 times the calcium as milk. Nori, the seaweed wrapped around sushi rolls, contains protein, calcium, iron, potassium and more vitamin A than carrots. If you’re taking medications, check with your doctor.

Try it: Try sushi or maki rolls. Or cut nori strips into pieces and sprinkle on salads, Russell suggested. Put kelp in a shaker and use instead of salt. Add to soups. Or mix it with olive oil or tamari and use as a seasoning.


Don’t shun this creamy fruit because of the fat content. Avocados have good, unsaturated fats which help with growth and development of the central nervous system and the brain. They’re packed with nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. And they play well with others; when you eat an avocado, it helps the body absorb more fat-soluble nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene, as well as lutein, from other foods.

Try them: Use avocado in place of mayonnaise. Add it to smoothies, salad, salsa, soups or sandwiches.

Dried plums (prunes)

These little gems are “a mouthful of rich sweetness,” said dietitian and nutrition therapist Victoria Shanta Retelny of Chicago. High in antioxidants, they also have twice as much potassium as bananas; potassium can help keep blood pressure in check.

Try them: Retelny loves to dip them in dark chocolate or she purees them, then tops them with a dollop of plain yogurt and cinnamon.

Chia seeds

The little seeds that blossom into low maintenance pets – or the bizarre new Chia Obama – are actually nutrient-dense whole grains with omega-3 fatty acids. “They have among the highest antioxidant activity of any whole food, outdistancing even fresh blueberries,” doctors Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz wrote in “You: Staying Young.” Studies also have shown they can level out blood sugar spikes. Roizen and Oz recommend two daily doses of about 20 grams of seeds each.

Try them: Use like flax seeds. “Sprinkle chia seeds in oatmeal or cereal for breakfast, or add them to salads, smoothies or baked goods such as muffins or brownies,” said natural health expert Jordan Rubin.


The deep red color can be a little intimidating, but earthy beets give us fiber, iron and vitamin C. “Plus, they contain betacyanin, a powerful cancer-fighting agent that has been shown to help prevent colon cancer,” said dietitian Gloria Tsang, founder of the online nutrition community Healthcastle.com. They also contain antioxidants that have been shown to lower total cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.

Try them: Try marinating steamed beets in fresh lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs. Grate raw beets onto salads, soups or any other dish. Or simply roast them with other veggies, Tsang suggested. But don’t cook beets too long, because their anti-cancer activity is diminished by heat.


Though fresh pumpkin is available only in the fall and winter, canned products are just as healthful, Tsang said. “A serving of pumpkin (1 cup) has nearly 3 grams of fiber, and is packed with beta carotene – an antioxidant that can help improve immune function and reduce the risk for cancer and heart disease,” she said.

Try it: Cut fresh peeled pumpkin into chunks and roast with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, Tsang suggests. Or drop a generous scoop of canned pumpkin into plain pancake batter, or make a soup from canned pumpkin, chicken broth and fat-free half-and-half.


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