The quality of the brain function many times determines the overall function of one’s body and quality of one’s life. Typically the efficiency of one’s energy production throughout one’s mitochondrial “total body library” predicts the brain’s cognitive performance. So review the energy subsection as these topics all overlap. So much of the strategies here overlap with other sections, and I will mainly mention them again, and then they're some new issues as well.
Keeping to the theme that one must do the basics before diving into the more esoteric strategies, let's start with the low hanging fruit to maintain the best cognitive performance.
STEP 1: Hydration
I must go back to the strategy that you need to own your morning to power up your brain and nail it through the rest of the day. Although we have different diurnal rhythms, whether you're a 5 AM riser or 8 AM riser, certain rituals will bring you the best success consistently. If we take the time to rehydrate with the filtered, possibly sea salt enhanced tap water in the volume of 16 to 24 ounces followed by your favorite choice of fresh tea or coffee as the critical first step. Remember the brain has a circulatory and lymphatic system, and proper hydration is fundamental.
STEP 2: Grounding
My favorite next step is an exercise Prayer/Meditation/Daily Goal-setting/ Gratitude Review through relaxed nostrils breathing placing the nervous system into a parasympathetic balance. This 10 to 20 minute morning step sets the tone for integration in the brain, and all systems function better and sustainably.
STEP 3: Exercise
Once these two steps are finished, I like the initiation of some exercise to overlap with the morning cortisol rise. This engages synergy and diminishes any blood glucose rise related to the cortisol elevation while providing some turbo boost to get your exercise done. Recent studies confirm that high-intensity training or HIT generate the most growth hormone activation and downstream production of brain-derived neuropeptide factor (BDNF) which enhances neuroplasticity or the ability of the brain to make new cells and repair injury. Ironically all the studies on dementia show that the single most important thing to delay, prevent, or mitigate the multiple forms of dementia is exercise and more specifically HIT. The good news is that you can achieve these results with short interval 5-10 minutes aerobic or gravity/weight floor exercises before you get into the morning shower. Yes, we could talk about the studies of 90 seconds of sprinting three times a week versus 45 minutes slower pace stationary bike and after eight weeks, the 90 second crowd had greater mitochondrial density in their thigh muscle biopsies reflecting greater improvement. The longer we exercise can lead to greater reactive oxygen species (ROS) which can require greater recovery work by the body and tax our resources. Longer excise efforts are important but save them for the weekend or days when you can more fully recover.
A good strategy when working to keep the brain crisp and fresh is to work intensely for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. During break do something different like go outside, do some jumping jacks, drink some water, or hug your loved one or dog. Segmenting your mental work has been proven successful in many studies but remember to watch the clock and keep the breaks short. What you don't want to do is try multitasking with your phone buzzing requiring frequent checks, the TV on or music with voices or lyrics tease and distract your brain. I know you think you can, but studies prove you wrong.
STEP 4: Food
The next step may be to fuel up your body or for some of those who are doing longer non-eating windows and delaying their first fuel till lunchtime, it may be time for the second cup of coffee or coffee with clean fat. If you are going to eat at this point, stick to no or low carbs and don't forget to feed the microbiome with some prebiotic (soluble and insoluble fiber that enhances explicitly the good bacteria in our gut). Remember to make it easy, because if the healthy choice is a natural choice, it will happen more often. I like a stick, or two of celery followed by organic boiled eggs, drizzled with olive oil, black pepper, curry powder, and maybe some cinnamon. As one becomes more metabolically flexible and engages the long eating windows, frequently the first meal is not till midday. Don't fall into the trap of slamming down any sugary juices, high fructose fruit (remember to stick with the berries), cereals or toast. All these detours will pop your blood sugar up and trigger hunger in about two hours when things drop again while increasing your waistline. I sure wish I knew this during my school years as I can specifically remember sleeping through the morning after my big bowl of cereal/banana and orange juice that I rushed through before leaving the house. Remember if you own your morning, you will also own your day and create a successful and happy life (Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod).
Step 5: Sleep
We have talked a lot about “Setting the Table” for a great day, which implies high-level cognitive function, and all the steps will help trigger this result. We jumped over the most essential step in setting the table though; sufficient high-quality sleep the night before. Remember our discussion of how good sleep aids the consolidation of memories through regular light/ deep/ REM sleep cycles while preparing the brain/cognition for the next day. Don't be fooled and think you are different, studies show reduced cognitive function that people are typically not aware of using standard test when they contract their sleep. Consider being deliberate as discussed previously, and track your sleep with some system once again I like the Oura Ring. Read more on Sleep
STEP 6: Breathing
Frequently overlooked in the discussion of cognitive function is the importance of nostril breathing to stay in a state of rest, digest and relax or parasympathetic dominance. One cannot learn if they are in a state of fight or flight where cortisol levels are high, and anxiety leads to some version of “brain jam." Remember a closed mouth straight profile posture and the brain will be ready to capture anything and process. Don't forget the benefits of androgens such as testosterone on the brain function which is released by something as easy as standing up straight with a dominant profile as you walk in the room or at various intervals.
My Breathing Ritual
My favorite Friday morning interventions when I don't have a schedule fitness session is Wim Hoff Breathing practice. Briefly, this is 30 breaths rapidly in through the nose and collapse out the nose and mouth and then 30 blow all the air out and hold it while watching your stopwatch. One should then sit still try to relax and overcome the air hunger anxiety that we are wired to demonstrate. As we master this drive to breathe, we strengthen our tone and enhance our rest, digest and relax baseline or idle mode. We repeat this cycle two more times, and the breath hold gets longer and possibly has a one minute hold, then two minutes and third cycle up to 3-minute hold. On the fourth cycle of 30 breaths, near the end of it, we get in the push-up position and at the final exhale we then fire off as many push-ups as we can while holding our breath. One gets to that point where the head feels starving for oxygen, and we ultimately stop. One can do a surprising amount push-ups because the rapid breathing blows off CO2 and diminishes lactic acid build that causes acute soreness. This process can significantly activate mitochondrial function similar to a long, challenging workout but get it done in 15 to 20 minutes. Once again, the result is a serious brain “clarity buzz” especially if you can do a wall stand and get upside down immediately afterward to flush the brain.
We may have had the experience when we're humming along feeling great with a curiosity and brain clarity ripe for learning when you get some terrible news that shuts us down. At that point of mental paralysis, nothing seems possible, and simple things challenge us to the point of emotional breakdown. I just described the difference between normal functioning and some level of depression. The medical textbooks describe three levels of depression with the most severe described as profound oppression such that someone may not get out of bed for days and the emotions are in a deep dark place. Deep depression such as this may require medication for help. The first and second levels of mild depression have never been shown to have statistically significant improvement in recovery through the use of standard medications versus placebo. To combat the swings in our mood, which is normal to human seasonal rhythm, forgo the pharmaceutical strategy coupled with side effects and costs and consider some simple interventions that are available to all of us. By keeping our brains in growth and forward-looking rhythm, we can significantly improve our learning and cognitive advancement. As a cancer doctor for many years, I understood the probability of depression and anxiety in this vulnerable population, and I frequently use the acronym FFFSSS as a reminder of secure non-pharmaceutical options to offer these patients. The six letters as a pneumonic for Fish Oils, Fitness, Friends, Sunshine, Sleep, Sweets (as a substitute for dark chocolate). These six simple tools will prevent deep emotional lows by maintaining a healthy serotonin level in the brain. Once again, don't eat sweets but grab dark chocolate or cocoa. Fake it until you make it by doing 4+ of these strategies a day until you feel that return to normal.
Staying socially connected by calling a friend or a few friends is one of the best and most underrated tools. Sun exposure on the eyes will activate the pineal gland and a cascade of happy chemicals for the brain. Fifteen minutes of mild sun exposure to the arms legs and chest will and activate vitamin D2 to D3, which helps many things, including our mood and brain function. Sleep recharges the brain, and it is no wonder three days of sleep deprivation can lead to insanity. We have talked about fitness and BDNF benefits to neuroplasticity, which also protects against depression. Moreover, don't forget fish oils the building blocks of the neuron membranes and ongoing brain repair and health. Dark Chocolate activates nitric oxide pathways and aids the vasodilation of microcirculation in the brain and helps generate serotonin. Once again, all but one randomized trial for mild and intermediate depression showed no benefit to pharmaceutical over placebo in treatment head significant side effects and financial costs.
STEP 7: Avoid The Fog
Another tool to enhance cognitive function and growth is avoiding things that fog cognition and mental clarity. Some of these cognition “slammers” are starting to be well-known like sedating medications, high carbohydrate meals, anxiety-producing events, fluorescent lightbulbs, and subtle food allergies that trigger allergic reactions (lectins, milk or dairy sensitivities, mold in coffee). Some of these stealth allergies are identified by careful mindfulness and body awareness through possible journaling or measured blood sugars after eating. An unexpected rise in blood sugars with a low carbohydrate meal may imply food allergy or incompatibility, so pay attention. A simple glucometer and finger stick practice can flush out allergies that could go unnoticed.
Causes of Cognitive Challenges
Other things to consider is if someone is unable to correct cognitive challenges despite interventions as above, is to look at the history of concussion or possibility of toxic mold in the living environment. A high percentage of us have sustained an injury to the head during our lifetime that can have lingering effects. Dr. Daniel Amons identify this anatomical fingerprint frequently on spect MRI scans of the brain for brain challenged patients with forgotten histories of head trauma.
STEP 8: Cold Immersion
Other bio hacks to jumpstart the brain include cold immersion which activates catecholamines and ultimately growth hormone with parasympathetic tone leading to a “clarity buzz." You do not have to find a frozen lake or buy a freezer chest or cryotherapy unit. A fairly big bowl full of ice and water in the shower for “bird bath” head dunks to the ears for at least 30 seconds will do the job. Alternatively, if you have some time on a weekend, six frozen 2 L filled water bottles, ice from the freezer, in cold water filled the bath with emersion to the ears will jumpstart your brain and heal the body in a quick 5 to 15 minutes session.
supplements for brain function
Many nootropics or agents which enhance brain function can have minimal or no addictive side effects or dangers. Without spending too much time here as I would preferably have you optimize by the essential tools above, I do want to mention some of my favorites:
An old long used supplement from South America is Bacopa Monnieri, which has qualities to protect the brain and enhance function.
L-Theanine has cognitive enhancement features but with a relaxation effect concurrently.
Nicotine is an amazing clarity and memory enhancement tool as long as one delivers that safely through non-smoking or tobacco chewing strategies.
Caffeine enhances the reabsorption of adenosine in the neuron to neuron synapses of the brain leading to less sleepiness and improved alertness.
Coffee has many other benefits and is the most significant source of polyphenols in our diet, significantly improves liver function, and most studies show longevity enhancement for those who use it. A favorite coffee of mine is Kimera Coffee which is a fresh organic brew with a touch of cognitive enhancement additives such as Alpha GPC (choline supplement), Taurine, L-Theanine, and DMAE (Choline supplement as well), Ginko Biloba (plant extract is known for circulation boosting and anti-inflammatory qualities).
We could continue for a good while on nootropics, but these are the natural and safe in low doses but like discussed previously, do the fundamentals listed earlier, and the brain should work wonderfully without relying on too many of these supplements.