Biohacking is all the rage right now, from ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting to ice-cold plunges and brain-stimulating supplements. People are eager to optimize performance, resilience, and health. And why shouldn’t they be? Our ingenuity as human beings is what has propelled us throughout history! If we can figure out how to do it better, faster, or smarter – we will. But when it comes to brain health, there’s no one solution. Your best bet is to combine diet, lifestyle, and nutrients for optimal results. Here are some of my favorite hacks to keep your brain as sharp as possible.
Nootropics are compounds that stimulate cognitive function, focus, or memory. There are a lot of products on the market, and sometimes it can be a matter of figuring out which one works best for you. One long-time favorite is L-theanine, an amino acid derived from green tea. It cuts cortisol production and provides a calm but alert mood. This makes it especially great for reducing anxiety that may get in the way of productivity . Citicoline, also called CDP-choline, is similar to B vitamins and is the main building block for acetylcholine – a brain messenger that’s important for neural processing and memory. One study in healthy adult women found that 250mg for 1 month improved attention and performance when given a continuous task, and another study found that citicoline improved memory recall in older adults [2,3].
In the realm of medicinal mushrooms, Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is the king of cognitive function. Studies suggest it can help with neural growth and may prevent cognitive decline among the aging . The mushrooms are also wonderful adaptogens, meaning they help you adapt and increase your tolerance to stress over time. The herb Bacopa monnieri can be used to increase memory and retention and is often used among students. One study of second-year medical students found 300mg daily to be more effective than placebo at improving memory scores after 6 weeks . Ginkgo biloba is another well-known herb for improving blood flow to the brain, and in some cases has a mild antidepressant effect, too [6,7]. With any herbal or supplemental protocol, consult with your healthcare provider to determine whether they will be safe and effective for you.
When it comes to optimizing your brain function, don’t forget the basics. Simple blood work to check your iron level, thyroid function, vitamin B12, and vitamin D status is so important, yet often overlooked. The main consequences of low iron levels are fatigue and low mood – not exactly productive for your mind! Low thyroid function, also called hypothyroidism, is responsible for brain fog, poor concentration, low mood, and fatigue. And it’s important to get a full thyroid panel done, not just TSH. The full panel will show you what your active hormones, T3 and T4, are doing. These can be off even if your TSH is deemed normal. Vitamin B12 is critical for nerve function and plays an important role in memory, focus, concentration, and energy . If you want to ramp up your brainpower, get your B12 level tested and follow up with some B12 injections. They’re a much faster way to boost your levels compared to supplements. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is mostly thought of for its role in immune function. But vitamin D supports mood and energy so strongly, I recommend testing for every patient . This one needs to be monitored over time, so work with your healthcare provider to ensure you’ve got adequate stores (I like to see a level of 125nmol/L), and that you’re taking enough to actually boost your levels.
On top of those nutrient requirements, if we’re thinking about brain health, we need to mention adrenal health. Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys and are responsible for how you respond to stress. They pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and if you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for too long, they burn out. Adrenal glands that are stressed use up B vitamins (which your brain also needs), mess up thyroid function and affect the hormonal cascade starting in your brain. Check out our 3-part blog series about adrenal fatigue.
Supporting your adrenal health with B vitamins, vitamin C, and adaptogenic herbs is a great way to support mental health and brain function as well.
We Are What We Eat
What we put into our bodies absolutely affects our health – and the health of our brains! The brain is about 60% fat, so getting the right types is important. Omega 3 fats like EPA and DHA from salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines or grass-fed animal product improves the communication between neurons and has even been shown to decrease depression . B vitamins are key nutrients that support nerve function and proper brain signaling and can be found in meat and fish, eggs, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. The star player, Vitamin B12, however, is only found in animal products or through supplementation. It is the main B vitamin for cognitive function, focus, clarity, and energy . Zinc is an important mineral for brain cell signaling and function and can be hard to find in vast amounts in the diet . The best sources are oysters (smoked oysters are delicious!) or pumpkin seeds, but smaller amounts are also found in beans and legumes and nuts and seeds.
But what do people often reach for when they’re looking for quick energy or a brain boost? Sugar and caffeine. Caffeine can definitely be a helpful perk if it’s not overused and if your adrenal glands are in good shape. But sugar almost always gives you a temporary high, followed by a crash that leaves your mood and brain function worse off than when you started! Your best bet is to get high-quality fats, moderate protein, and complex carbohydrates like whole grains and root vegetables for sustained energy. Decreasing inflammation by keeping blood sugar in check, and increasing antioxidants with fresh vegetables, fruit, and herbs goes a long way in supporting optimal brain function!
Lots of people are also jumping on the Ketogenic diet train or trying intermittent fasting to boost mental performance. Ketosis works by fasting the body of glucose (sugar) and forcing ketone production in the liver instead. Since ketones are a highly efficient fuel for brain cells, the result is increased clarity and mental alertness, without the nasty sugar crashes . Intermittent fasting encourages ketone production during the extended fasting period as well, and supports detoxification and autophagy – a process in which the immune system clears dead cells and metabolic waste, causing a decrease in inflammation and possibly preventing neurodegenerative diseases. These diets aren’t for everyone, though, so be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before trying them out.
We’re often so keen to optimize our brainpower or productivity, that we forget the essential ingredient of relaxation. Resting, either through downtime or adequate sleep, allows the brain to integrate new information and use it more effectively in the future. Sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively affect the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for consolidating new information and memories. Most adults actually need 8-9 hours of sleep a night, which is rarely achieved!
Another way to allow the mind to rest is with regular meditation. Meditation is like exercise for your mind, and the practice of shifting your mental state for ten or twenty minutes a day makes it easier to remain in a less frazzled, more focused place the rest of the time. Meditation increases the cerebral cortex of the brain, improving focus and memory. It also increases gray matter in the brain, which is linked to emotional regulation and makes it particularly good for decreasing anxiety . The easiest way to start is with a guided meditation practice from apps like Headspace or Insight Timer.
Physical activity can also stimulate memory and cognitive function in a number of ways. By decreasing inflammation, balancing blood sugar, and releasing growth factors, exercise absolutely supports the health of your brain cells. It also helps to burn up restless energy and improve mood and sleep. So find an activity you love, and be consistent!
I can’t speak about optimal brain function without mentioning trauma and mental health. Trauma can be something major like physical or sexual abuse, but it can also be something more insidious like a less than ideal home situation as a child, neglect, or bullying. Trauma affects our nervous system by replacing cues of safety with cues of danger. And if our nervous system is wired to perceive the world as a dangerous place, we’re more likely to be operating from a fight-or-flight or freeze mode. This impacts our capacity to learn as trauma decreases the size of key regions of the brain like the hippocampus and anterior cingulated . There are many powerful treatment options available today including counseling, EMDR, and neurofeedback. Resolving these root traumas can unleash blocked mental capacity and support healthy perception in life.
The last few years have seen a surge in research around brain function and performance, without any signs of slowing down. Choosing a combination of dietary changes, lifestyle management, and supplementation can have your brain functioning optimally and have you feeling your best. There is a lot of support available out there, so start building your health care team now in order to live your best life!
Dr. Aleksandra Gasinski, ND
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- Kumar et al. Efficacy of Standardized Extract of Bacopa monnieri on cognitive functions of medical students: a six-week, randomized placebo-controlled trial. Evid Bas Compl Alt Med. 2016.
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- Hallahan et al. Efficacy of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids in the treatment of depression. Brit J Psychiatry. 209(3):192-201. 2016.
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- Hernandez et al. Increased grey matter associated with long-term sahaja yoga meditation: a voxel based morphometry study. Plos One. March 2016. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150757.
- Rogers et al. Smaller amygdala volume and reduced anterior cingulated gray matter density associated with history of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric Research: Neuroimagining. 174(3):210-216. 2009.
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