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Using Vanilla to Increase Your Mental Performance

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It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like the taste of vanilla, but it’s even harder to find someone who knows how powerful vanilla can be for improving cognitive performance. It turns out vanilla is more than a humble flavoring and popular scent for air fresheners – it can also increase your brainpower.

Vanilla has been used for centuries as an antioxidant and cognitive enhancing agent, and for good reason.  Vanilla contains chemicals called vanilloids that activate receptors in a similar way to capsaicin, which is well known to reduce inflammation and improve mental performance. As you probably guessed by now, those receptors were named for vanilla, not cayenne!

Vanilla has been used to calm stomach pains, reduce hunger pangs and relieve stress. Europeans believed in vanilla’s abilities to reduce joint pain and help digestion. South Pacific islanders used vanilla to reduce nausea in pregnant women with morning sickness. More recent research has claimed that vanilla can cure male impotency.

“Vanilla is an aromatic stimulant, with a tendency towards the nervous system. It has also been regarded as an aphrodisiac. It has been employed as a remedy in hysteria, low fevers, impotency, etc. But its use as a medicine is obsolete in this country, although still sometimes employed on the Continent and elsewhere.”

–Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. Medicinal Plants; descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine... London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)

Vanilloids in general are powerful anti-inflammatories, and many of them like vanillin, eugenol, zingerone, and capsaicin are also found in ginger (zingerone), cayenne (capsaicin), and bay, allspice, and cloves (eugenol). All of these spices have been shown to reduce inflammation (especially capsaicin), but vanilla hasn’t been studied as much.  That said, it’s fair to assume vanilla has similar, and judging by my self-testing – possibly better effects than these other spices.

Inflammation decreases your cognitive performance by causing a release of inflammatory cytokines that basically “cloud” your brain.  This is one of the reasons people don’t perform well when they’re stressed.  Stress causes inflammation, which releases inflammatory cytokines like TNF-alpha, which decreases your brain function.

For the biohackers reading this, vanilloid activators like vanilla and capsaicin work in part because they “use up” your body’s supply of the neuropeptide substance P, a primordial pain signaling chemical present in all animals, even snails. High levels of substance P are correlated with arthritis, fibromyalgia, degenerative diseases, and inflamed nervous systems. Vanilla specifically is an agonist for TRPV3, a neuropeptide found in pain pathways in the brain, skin, and spinal cord. (1) Vanilla not only helps to deplete substance P, but it plays a role in helping you mediate thermal sensitivity in warm to hot temperatures. (2) Honestly vanilla works better for this use when you combine it with ice cream. :)

I first began to research the cognitive effects of vanilla after noticing that some vanilla beans made me feel great and some made me feel pretty slow.  I’ve come to realize that mold toxins are a major problem in dried vanilla beans, so now I use Upgraded Vanilla when I make “Get Some” ice cream.  The research I did to formulate Upgraded Vanilla made it clear why vanilla can have such a big variance in how it makes you feel.

The anti-inflammatory compounds in vanilla are destroyed by excess heat.  If the vanilla pods or powder are improperly processed and/or exposed to higher than optimal temperatures, the benefits are lost.  Heating vanilla poses another problem – mold toxins.  The compounds in vanilla that help improve cognitive performance also act as natural anti-fungal agents.  When these compounds are destroyed, mold spores and fungi are able to grow on the dried beans during storage.  If you eat the wrong kind of vanilla, it can actually cause more harm than good.

I use vanilla almost every day, in either Bulletproof Coffee or whenever I have “Get Some” ice cream.  It’s produced a noticeable improvement in my concentration and ability to handle stress.

Vanilla tastes great with almost anything (even with turmeric on steak!), but the cognitive benefits are the real reason it’s so great.  The right kind of vanilla can improve your mental performance, but the wrong kind (i.e. moldy vanilla) can do more harm than good. Cooking vanilla destroys many of the cognitive benefits, and may make it bad for you, so be sure to find a high quality, low temperature form, or better yet, one like Upgraded Vanilla which uses a proprietary curing process that takes more than a week to reduce mycotoxins in each batch.

The Dark Side of Vanilla

An estimated 95% of “vanilla” products are artificially flavored with vanillin derived from the paper-pulp byproduct lignin instead of vanilla fruits. (3) In the United States, castoreum, the exudate from the castor sacs of mature beavers, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive, (4) often referenced simply as a “natural flavoring” in the product’s list of ingredients. It is commonly used in both food and beverages, especially as vanilla and raspberry flavoring. (5)

 

Okay, that’s just gross. I did eat some kind of large sea snail in Hong Kong last night, but I draw the line at beaver castor sac exudate. Who the heck comes up with these ideas? (It was the Romans…)

The moral of the story here is that most “vanilla” isn’t actually vanilla, and most vanilla beans you can buy are treated like commodities and likely to have mold contamination. Your best bet is to follow a farm-to-table process designed to reduce toxins like I did with Upgraded Vanilla. I’m pleased to have created vanilla bean powder this pure and fragrant, knowing where it came from each step of the way. It matters!

Are you going to try vanilla to enhance your mental performance?

References

  1. TRPV3 is a calcium-permeable temperature-sensitive cation channel.Nature 418: 181-186.
  2. The TRPV3 Receptor as a Pain Target: A Therapeutic Promise or Just  Some More New Biology? The Open Drug Discovery Journal, 2010, 2, 89-97
  3. “Rainforest Vanilla Conservation Association”. RVCA. Archived from the original on 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2011-06-16. (via Wikipedia)
  4. Burdock GA., “Safety assessment of castoreum extract as a food ingredient.”, “International Journal of Toxicology”, Jan-Feb;26(1):51-5. (via Wikipedia)
  5. Burdock, George A., Fenaroli’s handbook of flavor ingredients. CRC Press, 2005. p. 277. (via Wikipedia)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.berryhill Daniel Berryhill

    Awesome! I love it when performance tastes good. Does this research imply that spicy foods are good for you too? I’ve always found that pushing my limits with chili peppers makes me feel awesome, but I’ve generally suspected it was little more than an endorphin high. I have used it to help fend off colds and whatnot when I feel them coming on, as well as to recover more quickly, but because my variables haven’t ever really been controlled, I find it hard to say if this is placebo or not. Is my thinking on the right track here?

  • http://twitter.com/Leo_Godin leogodin217

    I bought some upgraded vanilla and it’s delicious. Still not sure how to use it. For instance, should I just add the powder, or should I make some sort of liquid vanilla? How much upgraded vanilla should I use in place of 1 tsp of regular vanilla?

  • Drd224

    Dave,

    Very informative article, thank you.

    You’ve convinced me to spring for your product, but it didn’t take much as I freakin’ love vanilla.

    To echo leogodin’s thoughts: how does one add it to BP Coffee? Presumably sprinkle it on top of the final product as it is heat sensitive, correct?

    Also, when are you coming out with Upgraded Pepper? I don’t use pepper now after having heard you slam the stuff on one of your podcasts.

  • Gabriel

    Is the vainillin molecule close enough to the natural yo have similar effect?

  • Jim

    Any benefit using pure vanilla extract, or is that in the negative effects category? Thanks

  • http://twitter.com/chargrill Kent Cowgill

    Fascinating. Maybe this (plus my chronic pain) explains why I seem to love piling on hot (the hottest I can find) sauce onto so many foods.

  • nthmostfit

    REEAAAAallllyyy…. (said the vanilla addict). EEeenteresting…!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Swaringen/100000250965440 Jonathan Swaringen

    Yes, I’m very curious about your mention of using it in coffee as you mentioned heat being an issue….do you put it in the coffee after its cooled down…or is it ok if you drink it quickly…hmm

    What is a good temperature for coffee? Someone said in a review of my 5 cup programmable coffee maker that the water temp is 170. Is this too hot for vanilla and/or not hot enough to make good coffee?

    • Dave Asprey

      Coffee brews best at 185-200 depending on beans. I use 195 at home.

      This is a low temp compared to roasting; doesn’t hurt vanilla!

      Sent from my nobile phone. You understand…
      -Dave

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  • Doubtful

    Let me guess, Upgraded Vanilla is right around the corner…

  • heatherdarbs

    I second the extract question. Also, I’ve been blending turmeric in my BP coffee and just realized I’m adding a carb – am I breaking my fast, by doing this? Oops.

  • Qhudsia Fatima

    I also love vanilla and I’m excited to try the upgraded version in my coffee…is there any way to speed up shipping for future orders?

  • http://twitter.com/RyanCritchett Ryan Critchett

    Perhaps ! What’s interesting, and what I’ve seen before on your site, is the finding of moldy or otherwise not healthy components in everyday stuff, that slows you down or makes you feel.. less awesome. Good findings. I’m into optimization, so this is interesting to me.

    • Dave Asprey

      Thanks! I was surprised at what a big difference it makes.

      Sent from an iphone. That means it’s spelled wrong…and I’m probably lost. You understand… -Dave

  • Agus

    Hello, I am vanilla farmer from Indonesia,thank you for the information

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  • http://www.frogmo.com/ Jereme Thomas

    Seems like a common theme here. A lot of food and ingredients we all love are actually great for us but the processing and preparation of them makes them toxic and unhealthy. This is frustrating and definitely hurts the wallet!!

  • AnytaMothbane

    Dave,

    When are you gonna make some upgraded green tea? It seems like that should be right up there with the bulletproof coffee? I’m not as much of a green tea junkie as I am a coffee junkie, but it would be great to see tea on the listing. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, either, am I right?

  • Rupert

    Dave,
    Somewhat tangential to your post, but I wondered whether you have ever come across or used DMAE as a concentration / mental function enhancer?

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  • Chris Wyllie

    Do the anti-inflammatory benefits of capsaicin, make cayenne pepper a bulletproof spice? It is classified as a nightshade…. what’s the Bulletproof verdict?
    Thanks.

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