Published on January 29, 2012
It's an unfortunate reality that most of us function on a day-to-day basis with just a small percentage of our brain's true processing power. This means that you can't solve problems as quickly, talk to other people as intelligently, work as productively, or perform complex sports and exercise.
Some of this mental impotence is due to lifestyle, some to nutritional deficiencies, and some to just pure lack of use. In Podcast Episode #180, I mention gum as one potential way to improve blood flow to your brain and improve your memory.
But you can do much more than just chomp on gum.
So in no particular order of importance, here are 12 mental performance hacks to increase your mental performance, along with practical, easy-to-implement, brain-boosting quick tips after each hack. If you have questions, comments or feedback, leave them below this post.
#1 – Vitamin D
On numerous podcast episodes, I've praised the potential of Vitamin D for everything from boosting hormone levels to promoting bone health. But there are actually receptors for Vitamin D in the central nervous system and in the hippocampus (memory and spatial recognition) region of the brain – and in these areas, Vitamin D not only protects neurons, but also regulates enzymes in your brain and cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth.
One recent study investigating Vitamin D and cognitive function found that the lower your Vitamin D levels, the more negative your performance is on mental tests. Another study fund that people with lower vitamin D levels have slower ability to process information – especially in individuals older than 60. In addition
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: if you're in a northern climate or get limited sun exposure, include a few teaspoons of cod liver oil frequently in your diet, eat beef and butter, have calf's liver now and then, and take approximately 4000-6000 units of Vitamin D, preferably from a sublingual source. And if you're a vegetarian, for crying out loud, don't take a bunch of D. It's toxic unless you pair it with A and K.
#2: Fatty Acids
A substance called “arachidonic acid” is one of the most abundant fatty acids in the brain, and is crucial your neurological health, since it helps build the cell membranes in your hippocampus, helps protect your brain from free radical damage, and activates proteins that are responsible for growth and repair of neurons in your brain. In one study, 18 month old infants who were given arachidonic acid supplements for 17 weeks showed significant improvements in intelligence, and in adults impaired arachidonic acid metabolism or insufficient arachidonic acid intake is linked to brain issues such as Alzheimer's and bipolar disorder.
In my opinion, it would be silly to supplement with arachidonic acid since it is readily available in food sources, including Tilapia, catfish, yellowtail and mackerel (sushi anyone?), fatty cuts of meat, duck, eggs and dairy.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: See above. Eat that stuff. For example, if you don't plan on having meat or fish on a day, then have eggs for breakfast, or a big cup of full fat Greek yogurt. Go out of your way to get your hands on something like that every day.
#3: Good Coffee
100mg of caffeine, close to the amount you'll get in a cup of black coffee, has been proven to improve memory recall. Caffeine's psychostimulatory effects are primarily because it blocks a receptor in your central nervous system that is responsible for binding a compound called adenosine. When you inhibit adenosine, you get increased activity of dopamine and glutamate, two feel-good, alertness-increasing brain-stimulating compounds.
However, more caffeine is not better, since higher doses may decrease blood flow to your brain, and you can quickly build up tolerance. Furthermore, at least three caffeine-induced disorders are recognized by the American Psychiatric Association: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced sleep disoreder and caffeine-induced anxiety disorder. Furthermore, as mentioned in the BenGreenfieldFitness food pyramid, you need to choose fresh coffee from arabica beans, and not coffee powders or substitutes, since cheap coffee and coffee knock-offs are high in mycotoxins, which can actually give you “fuzzy thinking”.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Kick off your day with about 8-12 ounces of a high quality black coffee (I usually have it right when I get up, about an hour before breakfast), and then avoid caffeine the rest of the day. At least two days of the week, try to drink no coffee and avoid caffeine so you don't build up tolerance.
#4 – Light Therapy
A dip in alertness and focus during the day can often be due to excessive melatonin, which can induce sleepiness. Unfortunately, most websites, magazines or books tell you that the answer to this issue is to expose the eyes to more light in the morning via using something like a “light box”, which produces blue light.
The problem with this is that although it suppresses melatonin production and can increase alertness, this type of blue light is a wavelength of light that can cause damage to your retina, and eventually macular degeneration and loss of good vision.
I've been looking into a solution for this problem, and it appears that the best way to increase mental acuity and focus during the day is to advance the melatonin cycle so that it finishes before you even wake up. Basically, you do this by limiting your exposure to blue light in the early evening – via both limiting use of TV's, phones, and computers at night, and also using blue-light blocking glasses, applications like Flux, and computer screen covers in the evening.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: wear blue-light blocking glasses as soon as it starts to get dark outside, install Flux on your computer, and whenever possible, go outside and expose yourself to the sun first thing in the morning, even if it's just for a few minutes.
#5 – Phosphatidylserine
Compared to other similar triglycerides and dietary fats, phosphatidylserine is found in abundance in neural tissue, where it serves as a structural component of cell membranes, and also as an inhibitor of acetylcholine (which means it can increase alertness, and dopamine/glutamate levels in your brain).
Phosphatidylserine has been shown to improve memory and spatial recognition in rats, and may also improve cognitive performance and memory in humans, although the majority of studies have been done in elderly individuals (where phosphatidylserine has been shown to be beneficial in decreasing progression of Alzheimer's disease and dementia).
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Supplement/pill forms of phosphatidylserine tend to be expensive, especially when you consider that you can get it in fairly high levels in seafood, particularly herring and mackerel. Perhaps you're seeing a pattern here that it might be a good idea to become a fan of sashimi if you haven't tried it much, or at least to branch out beyond the ever popular “Wild salmon, please!”.
#6 – Fish Oil
Electrical signals used in thought, memory and processing bounce around in your brain and get transferred from one brain cell (neuron) to another via a point called a synapse, where the signals cross a physical channel before moving on to the next neuron. The walls that these signals need to pass through are comprised of cell membranes made up of about 20% essential fatty acids – like the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.
Specifically, these Omega-3 fatty acids may make the membrane that holds these channels more elastic, making it easier for the channels to change shape and for signals to propagate throughout your brain. With inadequate Omega-3 fatty acids, these channels lose flexibility and electrical impulses become hindered. Inadequate fatty acids may also harm the function of structures called G-proteins, which are the inside the cell membrane and of vital importance to the transmission of signals between brain cells.
It turns out that the use of Omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil may reduce severity of dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer's, brain atrophy and cognitive decline, while simultaneously improving mental function.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Don't waste your money on cheap, ethyl-ester forms of fish oil that you'll find in most supplements. Instead, pair 1-2 grams of a daily dose of triglyceride based fish oil with regular intake of cold-water fish like mackerel, herring, anchovies or sardines. If you're taking a bunch of fish oil, it's also a good idea to really step up dark, leafy green and dark fruit intake, or include a good antioxidant supplement.
#7 – Huperzine
I think “Huperzine” supplements have been flying off the shelves since Tim Ferriss mentioned them in his popular “Four Hour Body” book. Like a few other compounds I've already mentioned, Huperzine is an “acetylcholinesterase inhibitor”, which means you get more of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine rushing around in your brain. You call these type of things “cholinomimetics“.
Studies have shown that Huperzine supplementation has neuroprotective effects and enhances cognitive function in animals and humans – but what most people don't know about is that there are natural herbal sources of Huperzine. For example, in Chinese herbal medicine, an herb called “Club Moss” and slow progression of Alzheimer's. Guess what the active ingredient in Club Moss is? That's right – Huperzine.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Most Chinese herbs sit in big bins in China for several years and get old, ineffective, and sprayed with toxic ethylene oxide. TianChi is the only Chinese adaptogenic herb complex that I've found which actually has effective Club Moss, along with a cocktail of other brain-boosting ingredients. It's spendy but in my opinion well worth it. I do one TianChi on an empty stomach every afternoon, and if you were going to do one thing in this entire post that you could feel instantly, this would be it.
#8 – Music
In addition to helping you exercise harder, music has been proven in studies to assist with “dopaminergic neurotransmission”, which basically means it can cause a giant dopamine release in your brain, and make you smarter and more mentally responsive. Exposure to music also significantly increases blood, which, via something called a “calmodulin pathway”, may cause a reduction in blood pressure and increased blood flow to the brain.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Music can also be distracting, so don't constantly pump it into your ears. The most powerful effects of music on brain development have instead been demonstrated through actual learning of music. Yes, I am suggesting that you pick up a musical instrument, play Guitar Hero occasionally, or install that “mini-piano” app on your phone. Seriously.
#9 – Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Alpha-Lipoic Acid (also known as “ALA”) is a fatty acid that can protect neurological decline with age, and can also be used as a treatment for diabetic neuropathy. Alpha lipoic acid can easily cross the blood-brain barrier (a wall of tiny vessels and structural cells that protect your brain), and pass easily into the brain to have these neuroprotective effects.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: I've personally found a great deal of enhanced focus and a “buzz” when I combine Alpha-Lipoic Acid with Acetyl-L-Carnitine (see below). I've been doing this by squeezing a couple “NutraRev” servings into a glass of ice with water.
#10 – Acetyl-L-Carnitine
Acetyl-L-Carnitine plays a variety of roles within your brain, including synthesis and stabilization of cell membranes, regulation of neural genese and proteins, better function of the “mitochondria” (the energy powerhouse of the cell), protection from free radical damage to the brain, better transmission of acetylcholine, and enhanced glucose uptake to the brain.
In addition to increasing alertness, cell energy producing capacity, and neuronal transmission support, Acetyl-L-Carnitine can also help with depression symptoms.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: See my tip on #9. If you really wanted to boost intake, you could take about 1000mg of this twice a day, along with 500mg of Alpha-Lipoic-Acid. I've personally never taken that much though, and find improved focus and brain function with the smaller amounts in NutraRev.
#11 – Vitamin K2
Your brain contains one of the highest concentrations of vitamin K2 in your entire body, and it is in this area of your body that Vitamin K2 prevents free radical damage to neurons and contributes to the production of the protective “myelin” sheets around your brain cells.
Vitamin K2 is a relatively new darling on the supplement front, and many folks are rushing out to buy and use it for it's bone building, brain building, and other remarkable benefits. But the fact is, unless you have a serious deficiency or disease that requires K2 intake, you're better off getting it from natural sources: grass-fed beef, fermented dairy products (like kefir) and natto (a fermented soybean derivative).
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: Go find natto and try it out with some white rice (it's gooey and slimy, but full of brain-boosting vitamin K2), eat grass-fed beef, and try to have some kefir in your diet (I personally mix kefir with protein powder for a snack).
#12 -Brain Aerobics
There is continuing research that doing brain aerobic exercises (like Sudoko) can help to “age-proof” your brain and slow the onset of symptoms of brain aging, and can also help to keep your brain functioning at peak capacity. To qualify as a good brain aerobics exercise, an activity must have novelty, variety, and challenge.
In other words, going to work every day to your “mentally challenging” job does not provide the novelty to challenge your brain, sticking with the same “brain aerobics” activity day-after-day does not provide the variety, and engaging in brain activities that are familiar to you or easy (such as playing the same challenging computer game every day) eventually does not provide the challenge.
In other words: make your brain lift heavy stuff.
Brain Boosting Quick Tip: One of my friends, Dr. Arlene Taylor, has a bunch of completely free brain aerobic exercises on her website. You can also go do a search in the Apple iTunes store, or any other app store, for “brain exercises” and find good apps that will challenge your brain (Angry Birds barely counts though). By the way, if you play in a way that causes you to think ahead and solve problems as you go, activities like tennis or golf also count.
Finally, one of the best ways to get smarter is to exercise. But not all exercise qualifies. In fact, aerobic exercise is best for boosting brain power. For more on that, here's an interesting New York Times article about what type of exercise makes you smarter.
Questions, comments or feedback about how to boost your brain power? Leave them below.