Most days, I spend a lot of time thinking about the brain.
As I’ve stated before, I believe the brain is the next frontier, and is going to be the platform for a lot of innovation over the next few years.
The brain is the CPU of the human body.
The brain is the wetware which generates consciousness, drives movement and make us, us.
I think our personal neurochemistry or the general health/function of our brain plays a pivotal role in our overall health, happiness and ability to become effective human beings in this modern world.
Here are some trends you’ve probably noticed being discussed recently:
- We have an aging population
- Neurodegeneration due to aging and disease is increasing
- Depression, anxiety and stress are rampant (particularly in the younger generation)
- Social media and the internet are proliferating
- Productivity and creativity is being rewarded more than ever
- You need to be focused in order to compete and be your best
- We are more distracted than ever with new tech gadgets, information overload and our digital lives being so prominent
These trends all share one common denominator.
They all are factors that impact your brains health and performance.
So, how does one go about improving their brain health, performance and neurochemistry?
Well, thankfully, there are plenty of lifestyle choices and interventions we can make and other tools/tips we now have at our disposal to work towards this goal.
This will be Part 1 of the series. Part 2 will look at other, more fringe tools and technologies that are coming to the public eye.
Let’s take a deep dive.
1. Nutrition & food
Your nutrition regime and the food you intake every day has the ability to seriously affect your brain health and overall neurochemistry.
Eat the wrong foods, and you can cause inflammation which leads to brain fog. This can include foods like sugars, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, vegetable oils and processed meats. This inflammation can also compound over time, and lead to a variety of chronic diseases later in life.
Generally, the best diet to follow for overall health seems to be the Mediterranean diet. Mix this in with the MIND diet, which has been clinically shown to reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  
The Mediterranean diet generally consists of a wide variety of fruits/vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds and olive oils. This can also include a weekly intakes of fish and eggs, but a limited intake of red meat.
The Mediterranean diet is very plant based. A wide variety of vegetables, beans and fruits provides not only essential micronutrients to power your bodies biological processes, but also sufficient fibre. This fibre acts as a prebiotic and helps nourish your gut microbiome population. A healthy and diverse microbiome is key to good health and brain function.
The Mediterranean diet also includes a number of healthy fats. This includes monounsaturated fats from Olive oil. This also includes Omega 3 Fatty acids from both fish and nuts, a type of polyunsaturated fat that reduces inflammation in the body and can lead to improved brain function. The two most prominent types, EPA and DHA, are what you find in most fish such as salmon and tuna, whereas ALA (Alpha Linolenic acid) is found in nuts and seeds. Omega 3 fatty acids also lower trigicerydes (blood fat).
Feel free to also enjoy a small amount of lean, red meats during the week.
Dairy is also welcome in small amounts, such as a variety of cheeses and low fat yoghurt. Eggs are also a great source of protein and dietary choline. Choline is used to synthesise phosphatidylcholine, a phospholipid that is vital for cell membranes, and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter affecting memory, mood and muscle control.
Now, let’s take a look at this “MIND” diet.
The MIND diet stands for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.”
The MIND diet, opposed to the traditional Mediterranean diet, focuses on eating berries rather than fruits for improved brain function.
The MIND diet primarily encourages you to eat the following:
- Green, leafy vegetables: Aim for six or more servings per week. This includes kale, spinach, cooked greens and salads.
- All other vegetables: Try to eat another vegetable in addition to the green leafy vegetables at least once a day. It is best to choose non-starchy vegetables because they have a lot of nutrients with a low number of calories.
- Berries: Eat berries at least twice a week. Although the published research only includes strawberries, you should also consume other berries like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for their antioxidant benefits.
- Nuts: Try to get five servings of nuts or more each week. The creators of the MIND diet don’t specify what kind of nuts to consume, but it is probably best to vary the type of nuts you eat to obtain a variety of nutrients.
- Olive oil: Use olive oil as your main cooking oil. Check out this article for information about the safety of cooking with olive oil.
- Whole grains: Aim for at least three servings daily. Choose whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and 100% whole-wheat bread.
- Fish: Eat fish at least once a week. It is best to choose fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna and mackerel for their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Beans: Include beans in at least four meals every week. This includes all beans, lentils and soybeans.
- Poultry: Try to eat chicken or turkey at least twice a week. Note that fried chicken is not encouraged on the MIND diet.
Whether its the Mediterranean diet or slightly varied MIND diet, there are some general takeaways and trends that you should notice for improving your brain health and neurochemistry specifically. Don’t make it complicated.
I’ll sum these up in some dot points below and add a few extra tips.
Key takeaways to remember:
- NO ADDED SUGAR’S (OR AS MINIMAL AS POSSIBLE)
- A lot of fruits and vegetables for essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as prebiotic fibre to support a healthy gut microbiome population. Aim for 30–40g per day of fibre.
- Aim for a diverse selection of foods. This adds diversity to your gut microbiome which is good for you!
- Blueberries for potent anti-oxidants
- Nuts/seeds and fish for healthy fats (omega 3 fatty acids)
- Eggs for dietary choline, folate and B-vitamins.
- Dark chocolate, tea & coffee are rich in polyphenols and flavonoids
- Try to avoid artifical sweeteners which may damage your microbiome.
- Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory (add piperine or black pepper extract for better bioavailability/absorption)
- Eat avocado which includes vitamins C, E, K, B6 and riboflavin, niacin, folate, magnesium, potassium and is a good source of healthy fats (Omega 3 fatty acids).
- Eat broccoli and green, leafy vegetables which contains anti oxidants and Vitamin K
PERSONALISED FOOD (DEEPER DIVE…)
The recommendations we made above are generalised to suit MOST people.
However, this doesn’t mean it will be the healthiest option for you as an individual.
If you want to take your health a step further, and to really determine what foods are going to make you feel best (body and brain), you may want to take a look at the role of your gut microbiome.
The type of bacteria and other microorganisms living in your gut, can significantly determine how foods affect you and whether they’re really conferring much “health benefit”.
These startups send you a kit that that you use to take a stool sample and send it back to them. They analyse these samples in their lab and determine exactly whats living in your gut, and give you personalised food/nutrition recommendations based on this data.
This is where the future of food and nutrition is heading. Everyone is different, so you should eat based on what your body and microbiome really needs.
Sleep is another hugely important factor for maintaining and optimising your brain health and neurochemistry.
Most adults require 7–9 hours of sleep to function their best. But once again, this varies from person to person.
We seem to struggle in today's society with getting enough sleep, and this is a huge problem.
We all know that even just 1 or 2 nights of bad sleep can make us moody, delirious, irritable and “cloudy”. But chronic lack of sleep over a long period of time may increase your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Some small scale, initial studies have shown that even one night of bad sleep can increase the amount of Beta-amyloid plaque buildup in the brain by 5%. This is a protein that may be associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease.
Besides getting the requisite time of sleep (7–9 hours), the other obvious improvement you can make is increasing the QUALITY of your sleep.
Here are a few tips you can implement to improve your sleep quality:
- Block blue light at night. Blue light is emitted from most devices like your TV, computers and smart phone. Blue light tells your brain that its still daytime, and inhibits melatonin production (Sleep hormone), thus making it harder to achieve a deep sleep. You can block blue light by turning on blue light filters on your devices, wearing blue blocker glasses (like these Swannies here) or just staying away from screens as much as possible.
- Try not to consume caffeine or other stimulants past 2pm. Caffeine has a half life of 5–6 hours. This means that after 5 or 6 hours, you still have half the amount of caffeine in your blood stream.
- Don’t drink alcohol. You would be surprised how much alcohol can destroy your deep sleep, even with 1 or 2 standard drinks. Alcohol can significantly disturb your sleep patterns.
- Remove all LIGHT and NOISE. This one should be obvious. You want your room to be dark, still and quiet. This will allow you to get the best quality sleep.
- Make your room cool. Most people sleep better when the room is at a temperature of 18–20 degrees celsius with adequate ventilation.
- Don’t eat any large meals close to bed time. However, small, nutritious snacks may not be too bad, or even beneficial. 
These interventions may definitely help you get the sleep quality you need to be healthy and high performing. It’s worth experimenting and seeing what works best for you.
If you’re eager to take it to the next level, you can look at quantifying your sleep quality by getting a device or wearable that collects biometric data while you sleep.
I use the Oura ring to track my sleep. The Oura ring collects data like body temperature, heart rate, heart rate variability and movement to determine how long you’re in certain states of sleep (e.g. deep sleep, REM, light) and gives you both a sleep score and a “Readiness” score each day.
You could try some of the interventions I listed one by one, and measure it using a device like the Oura ring to determine if its actually making your sleep any better!
Most people associate exercise with improving just your physical and cardiovascular health, and not necessarily brain health.
But exercise is definitely one of the quickest and easiest “hacks” for improving your brain too.
Studies have shown that regular exercise can promote BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) as well as cause changes in gene expression that lead to improved cognitive outcomes by inducing structural and physical changes in the brain. Physical exercise also seems to be a protector from neurodegeneration.  
Whilst continuous, long form aerobic exercise can provide these cognitive benefits, studies also show that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) can evoke higher levels of BDNF. The study states that “ In healthy humans there appears to be a linear relationship between exercise intensity and the positive short-term effect of acute exercise on BDNF levels (i.e., the highest BDNF levels are reported after high-intensity exercise protocols)”. 
So what exercise is the best? The jury is still out on this one.
In general, it seems that any exercise which reasonably elevates heart rate will also be good for your brain. Try to incorporate both long form aerobic exercise as well as shorter more intense workouts such as HIIT or functional circuit exercises at the gym.
There are some studies showing that even just walking briskly, 2 hours per week yielded improved memory. 
What are you waiting for? Get exercising! Everyone is busy but you’re not too busy to fit in 30 minutes a day. It’s good for your body and your brain.
Meditation or some kind of mindfulness practice has been consistently shown to improve human health and well-being across a multitude of dimensions.
It’s the one thing everyone can really implement daily to see immediate changes in mood and happiness whilst providing long term, compounding benefits.
Some of the most common and immediate benefits for meditation and mindfulness include:
- Reducing stress and associated inflammatory response 
- Reduction in anxiety, paranoia, obsessive compulsive behaviours 
- Improved emotional health and mood
- Higher self awareness 
- Improve sleep
This is largely due to our controlled breathing and relaxing our body and mind, allowing us to enter a peak meditative brain-wave state.
This brainwave state you enter during meditation may be the alpha wave frequency (9–13Hz) or the theta state (4–8 Hz).
These brainwave states refer to the frequency at which large masses of neurons communicate within the brain.
When we enter alpha state or theta state, this communication slows down, we become relaxed and less anxious, we start to think more creatively, we are at peace and completely self aware of our actions and thoughts. We begin to feel more “like ourselves” than before. This is a favorable state to be in for our optimal health and well-being.
Long term meditation or mindfulness practice can have some profound results. This includes improving grey matter density in the brain, reducing age related memory loss and preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Not only this, but meditation can cause epigenetic changes, changes to our gene expression. It can upregulate genes responsible for longevity and our immune system, and down regulate genes responsible for inflammation.
So, how does one go about implementing this magical habit into their daily life? It’s simple:
- Download an app like “Headspace” or “Calm” which take you through voice-guided meditation and mindfulness sessions.
- Be consistent. Like any habit, practice this for 5–10 minutes per day, everyday for a few weeks and then try to maintain a habit of atleast 3–4x per week.
- Focus on your breath. Focus on breathing in for 3–5 seconds, pausing for 3–5 seconds, and breathing out for 3–5 seconds. This is called box breathing, it will help you enter the meditative brain-wave states/frequencies.
- Clear your mind. Remove all thoughts and negative chatter from your brain, but don’t judge yourself for doing so. Try to imagine yourself in 3rd person, at the corner of the room, staring back at yourself meditating. Think about the state and person you want to become.
- Sit comfortably with your legs crossed. If required, have a phrase or “mantra” that you repeat to yourself to keep you in-sync and in rhythm.
After you open your eyes you should feel a sense of tranquility and calm envelope your body and mind. Take it all in.
Keep doing this and you are well on your way to reaping all the benefits of this awesome practice.
5. Gratitude & positive thinking
You hear this all the time.
Be grateful. Think positive thoughts. You are what you consistently think about.
A lot of us just chuckle and think “Yeah, okay mate”.
But it does mostly seem that things go wrong always when you’re thinking negatively about a situation.
But there may be some actual science backing this.
Gratitude is the notion of being thankful and appreciative for everything you have been given and everything you have. It’s a powerful way to take a step back and realise all the good things in your life.
Studies have shown that gratitude can consistently increase happiness levels by about 25%.
In one study, by two psychologists from the University of California, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
The gamut of health benefits from gratitude are plenty, including:
- Improving overall physical health
- Improve mood, happiness and mental health
- Improving relationships and social interactions
- Improving immune system
- Lower levels of depression and higher self esteem
- More likely to make healthier lifestyle choices (exercise, eating well etc)
But how do we best form the habit of being grateful and thinking positively to reap these benefits?
I like to think of gratitude and positive thinking as a sort of “Operating System for life”.
Make it your baseline for how you deal with circumstances and problems.
Cultivate it further through regular practice, through methods such as:
- Writing thank you notes to loved ones who don’t get recognition
- Taking the time to physically reach out to people who have helped you or supported you in some way along your journey of life and showing your appreciation
- Keeping a gratitude journal and writing a few things you’re grateful for daily or weekly
- Meditation — use your mindfulness sessions to get into the present moment and be thankful about your life. Run through your head all the things you’re grateful for in that moment.
Gratitude and positive thinking is so often overlooked, but it can be a real game changer if we learn to cultivate it and begin to use it as our Operating Systems for Life. Why wouldn’t you want a positive outlook on everything? 3
Your thoughts will manifest into your reality and you will begin to act in the world in accordance with how you think and feel. It’s important to stay on top of it.
Supplements and nutraceuticals are extra tools that can be used to supplement your lifestyle and nutrition regime in order to improve brain health and neurochemistry.
Thankfully, there’s a bunch of supplements and natural compounds that exist in the world to support brain health specifically.
Don’t rely on these as a sole means of nutrition, or operate under the impression that taking some extra vitamins or herbs will make you limitless and protect your brain from all natural and artifical forces.
You can think of these as little protective compounds which you can take either cyclically or habitually to preserve your brain and potentially help prevent neurodegeneration over time.
They aren’t pharmaceutical drugs, and they don’t necessarily treat or cure disease. If you’ve already developed Alzheimers, or have some form of brain injury, your current best bet is still to take traditional medicines and pharmaceuticals (likely).
Firstly, you should be getting all your essential nutrients through your food as much as possible. We know this isn’t always possible though.
Deficiencies in Omega 3 fatty acids, as well as certain vitamins and minerals like Magnesium and Vitamin D are very common in the Western world. It may be wise to supplement with these if you think you’re lacking sufficient sources from your food intake.
One way to verify this is to get your blood work regularly checked at the doctors. Otherwise you’re just guessing really and may be wasting your money.
You can then begin to look at other compounds, typically found in nature, that have been shown through clinical research to impact key aspects of brain health. Everything from herbs to mushrooms to flower extracts.
This is where we come in.
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7. Creative problem solving, constant learning and novelty
You often see a few seniors in the work place who are still absolute guns at what they do. They have very little sign of neurodegeneration, and can still destroy you in any cognitive show-down.
This may be due to them continuing to stimulate their brain through their work, and tackle creative and difficult problems on a regular basis.
Creative problem solving and constantly learning new concepts or activities allows new connections to form between neurons in the brain. This is more commonly known as brain plasticity or neuro-plasticity. Even as we age, our brain is capable of growing, learning and forming new connections.
The old rule “use it or lose it” definitely applies to the brain.
This is especially important as we get older. We want to consistently engage in new and complex cognitive tasks and learn new skills in order to keep our brain healthy and prevent cognitive decline.
“A 2013 study in Psychological Science found that older adults ages 60 to 90 who did new and complex activities, such as digital photography or quilting, for an average of 16 hours per week for three months scored better on working and long-term memory tests than those who did more familiar activities like reading and doing crossword puzzles.”
It seems that by continuing to introduce complex and novel tasks, we can help our brain form new connections and improve memory, especially as we age.
The art and science of fasting has become a major trend and buzzword over the past few years.
From everything to losing weight/improving body composition, enhancing and activating longevity genes to improving brain function and reducing chance of disease. Fasting has shown promise in helping each of these.
The first major change that occurs in the body during a fasted state is the release and use of ketones, not glucose, as the bodies main and preferred energy source.
Fasting depletes the livers store of glucose, prompts fat cells to create fats which travel back to the liver and converts these fats into ketones for use as energy.
This triggers a cascade of effects and biological pathways.
The most prominent being the stimulation of a critical protein, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is a neurotrophin responsible for generating new nerve cells and improving memory and learning.
Fasting also stimulates autophagy, a metabolic process where cells clean or remove damaged molecules and dysfunctional mitochondria.
Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Aging and his team found that mice that fasted showed a 50 per cent increase in a brain chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is induced by an increase in the ketone body beta-hydoxybutyrate while burning fat during fasting.
Whilst most of the research into fasting for improving brain function has only been done in animal models, it seems to be a promising intervention that may very well strongly translate to humans as more research becomes available.
A very practical way to begin experimenting with or reaping the rewards of fasting is by taking a cyclical approach, such as intermittent fasting.
For example, you could eat 5 days out of the week, and eat very low calories for the last 2 days. Or you could restrict the time you eat to only 18–20 hours of the day, and fast for the rest.
There is no one best way for any individual so it may take a little bit of playing around to get it right and see what suits you best.
9. Do deep work
This may seem stupidly obvious, and it really is. But it is more important now than ever.
Being able to focus for a long period of time and do “Deep work” is essential to actually getting good quality work completed.
Deep work is a term popularised by Cal Newport in his booked titled “Deep Work”.
In our modern world, we are distracted more than ever. Our environment, our digital life, our co-workers, they are all distractions that stop us from doing our best work and maximizing brain performance.
Task switching and being distracted has been shown, even in studies, to reduce overall performance and output when it comes to work or cognitive tasks of any kind.
There may even be some science to back up the benefits of going deep.
The myelin surrounding your neurons acts as a sort of insulation, allowing electrical impulses to travel between neural connections. By constantly, repeatedly stimulating these same pathways, we allow the myelin to get stronger and thicker and continually reinforce these connections to be quicker over time.
Going deep does sound simple enough, but why do we ever rarely do it?
Here are some quick tips you can use to help you do deep work and achieve more from your brain:
- Turn your phone off during your period of deep work or focus
- Remove any social media apps or temporarily disengage them during your period of deep work
- Prioritise your most important tasks first and do not leave until you’ve completed them
- Use the “Pomodoro technique”. This is a time management technique which basically blocks out work periods of 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks, and alternates over time. I’ll write about the specifics of this technique in another blog. Our friends over at TimeChi have developed a piece of hardware and software which helps you implement the Pomodoro technique to get into a deep work state.
- Isolate yourself from external distractions i.e. other people during your period of deep work. Find a quiet room. Or go out in nature and focus.
There you have it.
These are my 9 top lifestyle practices you can look at amending or adding to your life if you wish to seriously upgrade your neurochemistry or brain health/performance.
There are also some more exotic and fringe ways to improve brain health and neurochemistry that fewer delve into.
Methods such as psychedelics, pharmaceuticals/medicines, nootropic peptides and also neural technologies like EEG neurofeedback, transcranial stimulation, brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) and light stimulation (photobiomodulation).
We will begin to look at these in my next blog posts.
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