Mindfulness Performance Enhancing Drugs?

As fast as mindfulness meditation is gaining traction in the mainstream, I still highly doubt it will end up being an Olympic sport with anti doping regulations anytime soon. But as new populations are seeking out courses like mPEAK for the performance enhancing benefits of mindfulness, I’m being asked more and more about supplements that might work synergistically with a mindfulness meditation practice to reduce stress and promote states of calm, creatively and flow.

“You can’t learn to swim when you’re drowning”

Beginning a meditation practice can be a fragile procedure. Unwanted thoughts can get louder and emotions that have been repressed can start coming to the surface. By the time my clients hire me as their coach, they're often already in a state of burnout: they're working too many hours and not sleeping enough, they're eating poorly and overusing caffeine to wake up and alcohol to calm down. Some clients are in the middle of a major life transition when they try meditation for the first time. In this state, it can be nearly impossible to relax for even a few breaths. “I want less stress, not more! This present moment sucks, why would I ever just sit here with this?” They complain that the practice can feel like it takes forever to start “seeing results” and some lose hope and abandon it altogether without ever experiencing a real moment of peace.  However, if they can get over this initial hump and taste a few moments of true ease, it can generate enough momentum to keep them going. So part of my role as their coach is to meet them where they’re at and help create conducive conditions, both internally and externally, to stabilize their practice. One powerful tool that can be used to stack the decks in their favor are "mindfulness performance enhancing supplements".

Kava- The Drink of Peace

Imagine gulping down a vente coffee and then trying to sit completely still and do nothing for thirty minutes. Caffeine is a substance that positively impacts performance during work related tasks and gives an edge in sports that requiring energy and endurance. But this same supplement would cause only agitation if taken before meditating- trust me. That is because caffeine is a central nervous system and metabolic stimulant that increases neural activity in the brain, which leads to a temporary increase in mental alertness and thought processing. Not exactly the state of mental calm you’re trying to reach during a meditation.

Kava on the other hand may be the drug of choice for a consistent peaceful experience during meditation and is one of my personal favorites for evening practice. Kava is an anxiolytic and is primarily consumed to relax muscles without disrupting mental clarity or slowing down reaction time. On islands like Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and the Samoas, where Kava grows, the earthy tasting drink has been used for centuries both ceremonially and socially. Kavalactones are the active chemical ingredients of the kava root and research shows that they can affect brain chemistry in ways similar to prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Drinking Kava before meditation encourages a deep and pleasant practice, offering a beginner (or the occasionally lazy practitioner) the experience of peace that can be found usually only after years of meditation.

Kava is prepared in tinctures, teas, and also comes in pill and powder forms. My preference is the traditional extraction with ground kava root, water and a cheese cloth but it can also be found from reputable sources as an extract that can be mixed with juice or coconut water. Although there is some disagreement about kava’s effects on the liver, if it is prepared correctly it has shown to be safe when consumed in moderation.

Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal supplements used to improve the function of your adrenal system, which is in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress. They help promote homeostasis by strengthening the body’s cellular sensitivity to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and burnout. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs.

Have you ever found yourself wide-awake at 3am with a racing heart?  When you’re chronically stressed or exhausted this causes the fatigued adrenal glands to squirt cortisol at times that are out of balance with your circadian rhythms, causing cortisol levels to spike in the middle of the night and then crash during the day when you need your energy the most. Adaptogens help heal adrenal fatigue and can get your cortisol back in rhythm when you’re compromised, by raising or lowering cortisol as needed.

Although they have only become popular in holistic health circles over the last decade or so, these same herbs have been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, to boost energy and resilience in the face of stress. Here is a list of some popular adaptogens that I've researched and personally experimented with during stressful times:

Rhodiola Rosea is a Traditional Chinese Medicine and Scandinavian herb touted to increase attention span and promote physical and cognitive vitality. It appears to be proven for reducing fatigue, irritability and exhaustion in prolonged stressful situations. This herb helps the body adapt to stress by affecting the levels and activity of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters found in different structures in the brain and influencing the central nervous system. It appears that rhodiola inhibits the breakdown of these chemicals and facilitates the neurotransmitter transport within the brain. In addition to its impact on the central nervous system, rhodiola can increase the chemicals that provide energy to the muscle of the heart and prevent the depletion of adrenal hormones induced by acute stress.

Bacopa Monnieri is an important medicinal herb used in Ayurveda, where it is also known as "Brahmi," after Brahmā, the creator God of the Hindu pantheon. Bacopa Monnieri is a Nootropic herb that has been used for longevity and cognitive enhancement. Supplementation can reduce anxiety and improve memory formation. Bacopa monnieri interacts with the dopamine and serotonergic systems, but its main mechanism concerns promoting neuron communication. It does this by enhancing the rate at which the nervous system can communicate by increasing the growth of nerve endings, also called dendrites.

Ashwagandha, one of the most powerful Ayurvedic herbs, means “the smell of a horse,” indicating that the herb imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion, and has traditionally been prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness. It is now popularly supplemented primarily for its ability to prevent anxiety but has also shown promise for relieving insomnia and stress-induced depression. Ashwagandha can significantly reduce cortisol concentrations and the immunosuppressive effect of stress. Beyond reducing stress levels, ashwagandha can improve physical performance in both sedentary people and athletes, as well as reduce Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Ashwagandha can improve the formation of memories, and may be able to treat Alzheimer’s disease, though more human evidence is needed. 

Amino Acid Chill Pills

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is an amino acid derivative compound that is fat-soluble and found in high amounts in the brain, where it contributes to cognitive functioning. This supplement works on the human body in three ways: by stimulating overall brain metabolism and by regenerating and restoring damaged nerve networks. It spurs the production and release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and the perception of pleasure and pain. PS has also been found to blunt the effects of physical stress by decreasing blood levels of ACTH and cortisol as well as two other stress hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine.

L-Theanine is a nondietary amino acid found in Green Tea. The properties of L-theanine can be summed up as being a relaxing agent without sedation and is also implicated in reducing the perception of stress and slightly improving attention. L-theanine has shown to promote relaxation by increasing alpha brain waves and decreasing beta brain waves. Alpha brain waves are associated with a meditative, relaxed, yet alert and focused brain activity. Beta brain waves, on the other hand, are markers of a more excited and non-focused state.

5-HTP is a form of the amino acid tryptophan which gets converted into serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the principal neurotransmitters involved in happiness and anti-depression and also regulates sleep and raises pain threshold. 5-HTP has been used with success to restore serotonin levels in those that may suffer from decreased serotonin levels, such as the depressed and those with high levels of body inflammation.

Use Mindfully

Unlike Kava where a pleasant, relaxing intoxication may be felt immediately after consumption, the effects of adaptogenic herbs and Amino Acids may initially be subtle and accumulate over time. The benefits are revealed as the over taxed adrenal glands eventually heal and the bodies chemistry rebalances. Some people feel a real and undeniable shift after a few weeks and others never notice how much the adaptogens were helping until they stop taking them.

All of these supplements have been well researched and are readily available at health food stores or online vitamin shops. As with all supplements, they will not do all the hard work for you. Supplements are only additional support for your practice similar to using guided audio meditation recordings rather than silence or choosing a comfortable chair rather than a cushion to ease tension in the back. To create a long lasting shift in your relationship to stress, supplements must be taken in conjunction with a healthy diet and a regular meditation practice