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 But its use as a medicine is obsolete in this country, although still sometimes employed on the Continent and elsewhere.”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.
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?
- TRPV3 is a calcium-permeable temperature-sensitive cation channel.Nature 418: 181-186.
- 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
- “Rainforest Vanilla Conservation Association”. RVCA. Archived from the original on 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2011-06-16. (via Wikipedia)
- Burdock GA., “Safety assessment of castoreum extract as a food ingredient.”, “International Journal of Toxicology”, Jan-Feb;26(1):51-5. (via Wikipedia)
- Burdock, George A., Fenaroli’s handbook of flavor ingredients. CRC Press, 2005. p. 277. (via Wikipedia)